What is triple negative breast cancer?

Triple negative breast cancer is a very aggressive form of breast cancer. Its causes aren’t the same things that are linked to other types of breast cancer, and it tends to spread beyond the breasts.

It also has a higher rate of coming back within three years after treatment, and it needs different types of treatment than other breast cancers.

Common related conditions
Breast Cancer Recurrent Breast Cancer

Causes of triple negative breast cancer

Only 10 to 20 percent of all breast cancers are triple negative. Some researchers think it might come from damage to a gene known as the BRCA1 gene. When this gene works like it should, it helps protect you from cancer. When damaged or mutated, it can lead to breast and ovarian cancer.

Risk factors for triple negative breast cancer

A few different factors put you at greater risk for this form of cancer. They are:

  • Being pre-menopausal
  • Inheriting a faulty BRCA1 gene
  • Being African American or Hispanic
  • Never having been pregnant
  • Being under age 40

Symptoms of triple negative breast cancer

The symptoms of triple negative breast cancer are the same as symptoms of other types of breast cancer: a lump in the breast, breast pain or redness. Nipples that start to turn inward or have a discharge are another sign that cancer might be present.

Diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer

Your doctor will take a sample of tissue, called a biopsy, from your breast to examine it for cancer. It is the only way to find out what kind of cancer you have. From looking at this sample, your doctor can see if the cells are cancerous, precancerous or if they’re normal.

The biggest indicator that it’s triple negative breast cancer is that the sample does not show signs of having estrogen, progesterone or a protein called HER2. These are found in other forms of breast cancer, but not in triple negative breast cancer. This is where the condition gets its name from — it's not a result of the three main factors that lead to breast cancer.

Treatments for triple negative breast cancer

Treatment for triple negative breast cancer is very different from treatment for other types of breast cancer. That’s because it doesn’t react to the drugs used to kill cells in other forms of breast cancer.

Because of that, doctors usually combine three forms of treatment to fight the cancer. They use chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

The good news is that this type of breast cancer seems to respond better to chemotherapy. This is often the first step, and doctors use it to shrink the tumor before removing it by surgery. Or your doctor might do surgery first, then use chemotherapy to kill off any cancer cells that are still in your body.

The surgery for triple negative breast cancer is often more extreme than with other cancers. Because it is such a dangerous cancer, doctors usually recommend having the entire breast removed. The name of this surgery is a mastectomy.

In some cases, your doctor may decide to not remove the entire breast. Instead, they may perform the surgery called a lumpectomy. In a lumpectomy, the surgeon only removes the tumor and some of the tissue around it.

After surgery, it is common to get radiation treatment. Radiation may kill any cancer cells that might have been left behind after the surgery.

Recovery from triple negative breast cancer

Part of recovery is going to be dealing with side effects from your treatment. Talk to your doctor about what you can expect. Nausea, pain, tiredness and vomiting are some of the side effects. It’s important to know what to expect and how to handle them.

Seeing your doctor regularly is an important part of recovery. This is especially true for the first three years after your treatment. Your doctor will schedule appointments every three to six months at first, and then you will need follow-up visits every six to 12 months. If your cancer has not returned after six years, you’ll be able to see your doctor just once a year.

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