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What is Triple- Negative Breast Cancer?

Did you know that there are many types of breast cancer?  Breast cancer is a disease made up of several subtypes, one of which is called triple negative breast cancer.  Approximately 10% to 20% of breast cancers are triple-negative.

Dr. Lisa Newman, who directs the U-M Breast Care Center, speaks to colleagues and patients in Ghana, Africa. Her research focuses on triple negative breast cancer in African-American women. In Ghana, she treats women with breast cancer and collects information to bring back here. By better understanding the disease in African women, Dr. Newman hopes to be able to improve treatment options for all women with triple-negative breast cancer.

Triple-negative breast cancer cells do not express three markers that can play a role in breast cancer.

  • Estrogen receptor(ER)
  • Progesterone receptor(PR)
  • HER2(human epidermal growth factor receptor 2)

These negative results mean that the growth of the cancer is not supported by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, or by the presence of too many HER2 receptors. Therefore, triple-negative breast cancer does not respond to hormonal therapy (such as Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors) that target estrogen and progesterone, or therapies that target HER2 receptors, such as Herceptin.

Who gets triple -negative breast cancers?

  • Younger people – Triple-negative breast cancer is more likely to occur before age 40 or 50, whereas other breast cancer types are more common in women; 60 or older.
  • African-American and Hispanic women -Triple-negative breast cancer most commonly affects African-American women, followed by Hispanic women. Asian women and non-Hispanic white women are less likely to develop this type of cancer.
  • People with a BRCA1 mutation. – When people with an inherited BRCA1 gene mutation develop breast cancer, especially before age 50, it is often triple-negative.

Researchers do not yet understand why premenopausal women and women in some ethnic groups have higher rates of triple negative breast cancer–than other groups of women.

Treatment for triple-negative breast cancers

Triple-negative breast cancer is typically treated with a combination of therapies such as surgery, radiation; and chemotherapy.

While many triple-negative cancers are aggressive, your doctor’s prediction of how well your treatment will work depends also on the tumor size and whether the cancer has traveled to the lymph nodes. There are some very effective treatments for triple-negative breast cancer.  Your doctor will work with you to find the treatment that is right for you.

Questions to ask your doctor

  1. Have you treated other women with triple-negative breast cancer?
  2. What treatments do I need?
  3. Am I able to get treatment through a clinical trial?
  4. Could you connect me to someone else who has been treated for triple-negative breast cancer?  Do you know of any support groups?
  5. Should I speak with a genetic counselor about genetic testing?

Do you have more questions regarding triple-negative breast cancer?  If so, leave a comment or contact the Cancer AnswerLine at 800-865-1125.

Learn more about U-M research involving triple-negative breast cancer:

Groundbreaking Research on Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Gets Boost from Komen

Breastcancer.org:  How Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Behaves and Looks

U-M gets $3.5M grant to study breast cancer stem cells and racial disparities

Study links African ancestry to high-risk breast cancer

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