What Is Triple-Negative Breast Cancer?

Erica Mayer and Nancy Lin
Breast cancer experts Erica Mayer, MD (left), and Nancy Lin, MD (right), from the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber.

Triple-negative breast cancer is a subtype of breast cancer where cancer cells do not contain estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, or HER2 receptors, and therefore test negative for all three. Triple-negative breast cancer affects roughly 15 percent of breast cancer patients and can be somewhat more aggressive than hormone-positive or HER2-positive breast cancer.

How is triple-negative breast cancer diagnosed?

The status of the breast cancer cells is typically determined through a biopsy. The breast tissue sample is sent to a pathologist to determine if the hormone receptors or HER2 receptors are present. If all receptors are not present, then the cancer is triple negative.

How is triple-negative breast cancer treated?

Because triple-negative cancer cells lack the receptors for estrogen and progesterone, and do not contain the HER2 protein, hormonal therapy or HER2-targeted treatments such as Herceptin are not effective. Research suggests that triple-negative breast cancer can often be very sensitive to chemotherapy, which is why chemotherapy is the backbone of treatment for this subtype. There are many types of chemotherapy that have shown to be effective against triple-negative breast cancer, particularly platinum chemotherapy. Many new targets for triple-negative breast cancer are currently being studied, and clinical trials at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers are investigating novel treatment options for patients with this subtype.

Who is most at risk for triple-negative breast cancer?

While triple-negative breast cancer can affect anyone, it is more common in younger woman and women of African American descent. The disease may also be associated with having an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 gene.

Other breast cancer subtypes:

Learn more about triple-negative breast cancer research and treatment at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber.

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