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Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: A Complete Guide

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Gerard Tamayo · Updated Aug 25, 2022

Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: A Complete Guide

Did you know that there are different types of breast cancer? One of these is triple-negative breast cancer, which occurs when there are no receptors (which function as doors to the “house” of cancer cells) commonly found in other types of cancers.

what is triple negative breast cancer

What Is Triple-Negative Breast Cancer?

To better answer this question, we must first describe what makes it “triple-negative.”

When your physician confirms that you have breast cancer, they will investigate what type of breast cancer you have. They will look for the presence, and in the case of triple-negative breast cancer, absence of protein receptors found on the surfaces of cells.

The three protein receptors are your Estrogen Receptor, Progesterone Receptor, and Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2 (HER2). These serve as the “doors” to cancer cells. 

Triple-negative breast cancer is a form of breast cancer that does not present with any of the protein receptors mentioned above. This means that treatment can be challenging, but it is not impossible.

Significance of Being Triple-Negative

In estrogen, progesterone, and/or HER2-positive breast cancers, special medications that target these receptors are available. These drugs include the estrogen receptor acting medication tamoxifen and HER2 targeting trastuzumab. 

So how does this type of breast cancer respond to treatment?

In the case of triple-negative breast cancer, none of these medications will be effective. Instead, conventional chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery are the typical methods of management.

The medications available for receptor-positive breast cancers have a lower rate of or less severe side effects when compared to conventional chemotherapy. These medications have also shown higher cure rates and may even be used as prophylaxis (taken to prevent) in patients who are at particular risk of developing breast cancer.

Cellular Classification

Most cases of triple-negative cancers are of a basal-like genetic pattern. This classification refers to the type of cells that make up the cancer, and in this case, the cells are similar to cells that line the breast ducts.

Hence, triple negative-breast cancers are typically called basal tumors, basal breast cancers, or basal-like cancer.

Though not all triple negative breast cancers are basal-like, this classification accounts for approximately 70-90% of cases.

Dangers Compared to Other Breast Cancers

What is triple negative breast cancer in terms of its potential complications?

One may believe that this type of cancer is difficult to treat and may have lower cure rates than receptor-positive breast cancers.

This is only half true; though receptor-positive breast cancers may seem like they are easier to treat, the prognosis of breast cancers depends on how early detection is in the course of the disease. The earlier a doctor diagnoses a cancer, the earlier medical intervention can begin.

Triple-negative breast cancer tends to grow faster and is more dangerous than most other types of breast cancer. However, doctors can catch this condition early through consistent screening of at-risk patients. 

Risk Factors for Developing Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

To better contextualize this type of cancer, it helps to know who is at risk.

There are several risk factors for the development of triple-negative breast cancer. Typically patients who are premenopausal are at most risk. However, the reason for this association has yet to be determined. 

Like many types of cancer, there is a genetic component to its development. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are inherited from both parents, work to prevent the development of cancer.

Alterations or mutations in this gene at birth increase the risk of developing breast, ovarian, and other types of cancer. To be specific, BRCA1 has been seen to increase the risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer. 

Treatment of Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

The treatment modalities available are limited in triple-negative breast cancer when compared to other types. 

If the cancer has not spread, surgical removal can be done. Doctors may initiate chemotherapy in order to shrink particularly large tumors. Chemotherapy can also be useful to prevent the recurrence of cancer for some time after successful treatment.

What Is the Survival Rate?

When discussing the prognosis of cancers, healthcare professinals typicall use the likelihood of survival in a span of 5 years or a 5-year survival rate. The 5-year survival rate is also useful when deciding between different treatment options.

Women with triple-negative breast cancer that is confined to the breast (localized) have been seen to have a 91% 5-year survival rate. Those with regional lymph node involvement or distant metastases (the cancer has traveled to another organ) have a 5-year survival rate of 65% and 12% respectively.

Key Takeaways

Triple-negative breast cancer is a concerning form of cancer given the limited available treatment options. It is more dangerous than other types of breast cancer as it grows and spreads faster, however, frequent screening and regular consultations with your physician can help detect the cancer earlier, leading to earlier treatment and better outcomes.

Learn more about breast cancer here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

John Paul Abrina, MD

Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Gerard Tamayo · Updated Aug 25, 2022

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