New treatments are being investigated for this aggressive form of breast cancer
Breast cancer is called triple-negative breast cancer when cancer cells are found to be negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2). Common breast cancer treatments target these three receptors.
Because triple-negative breast cancer cannot use receptor-targeted treatments like tamoxifen or trastuzumab (Herceptin), it is more challenging to treat. It can also be a more aggressive type of cancer with a higher level of recurrence than other forms of breast cancer.
Prevalence of Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
Roughly 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers are triple-negative. Researchers have learned that women with a BRCA genetic mutation have a higher risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer; these mutations are especially common among women who are diagnosed before the age of 50. On a positive note, a small 2010 study from MD Anderson Cancer Center has found that women with triple-negative breast cancer and BRCA mutations have a lower risk of recurrence than women without the mutations.
Other risk factors: There's some evidence that women who are pre-menopausal or are African American or Latina are at increased risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer. The condition, however, can affect women of any age or ethnic background.
Treatments for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
Treating triple-negative breast cancer follows many of the same protocols and procedures that doctors use to treat other kinds of breast cancer. In most cases, surgeryeither lumpectomy or mastectomyis used to remove the cancer from the breast(s). Surgery might be followed by a course of radiation to minimize the risk of recurrence, especially after lumpectomy.
Chemotherapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for about 40 percent of people with triple-negative breast cancer. Several studies have shown, in fact, that this kind of cancer responds better to chemotherapy than hormone-receptor-positive cancers.
Certain standard forms of chemotherapy are proving effective for triple-negative breast cancer. Clinical trials are also investigating the uses of drugs like docetaxel, paclitaxel, cisplatin, carboplatin (the latter are considered platinum agents) and other therapies. Recently, a class of drugs called PARP (poly [ADP-ribose] polymerase) inhibitors has shown promise in treating triple negative breast cancer in clinical trials. These drugs promote cancer cell death by stopping the repair of tumor DNA that has been damaged by chemotherapy.
If you've been diagnosed with this condition, it will be helpful to work with a doctor who has experience with triple-negative breast cancer, since our understanding of the disease is continuing to evolve. You can also get information and support from the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation Helpline at (877) 880-TNBC (8622).
Foulkes, WD et al. "Triple Negative Breast Cancer." New England Journal of Medicine 2010;363:1938-48.
"Guide to Understanding Triple-Negative Breast Cancer" by Living Beyond Breast Cancer in Partnership with the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation. 2009-2010.
MD Anderson Cancer Center