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Understanding Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

In the United States, nearly one in every eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Breast cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer for women, behind only lung cancer. For many women, the thought of being diagnosed with cancer is scary, but screening and education are important factors of prevention.

Triple-negative breast cancer makes up 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers diagnosed in women. In order to understand more about triple-negative breast cancer, we spoke with Stefania E. Nolano, DO, director of the Breast Program at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Abington - Jefferson Health.

What exactly is triple-negative breast cancer?

Dr. Nolano: Triple-negative breast cancer lacks the three most common receptors (estrogen, progestin and HER-2) that typically fuel cancer cell growth. Hormone therapy and other drugs that target these receptors to treat cancer are ineffective for triple-negative breast cancer.

This type of breast cancer is much more aggressive than others, as it is more likely to spread or come back after remission. It’s also more common in younger women, those who are African-American and those who have the BRCA1 gene mutation.

How is it typically treated?

Dr. Nolano: Triple-negative breast cancer can be treated with chemotherapy and surgery. Typically, we would use chemotherapy after all visible cancer has been removed via surgery, but in recent years we’ve made improvements in the way we treat this type of aggressive cancer with neoadjuvant chemotherapy. This refers to a method of treating the tumor with chemotherapy first and then resorting to surgery. By using chemotherapy first, we can hopefully dissolve the tumor to nothing (which is called a complete pathological response), or at least shrink it significantly, before attempting to remove it surgically.

If a patient doesn’t respond to chemotherapy, there are a few other medicines we can use as part of the patient’s treatment plan after surgery in order to improve their overall survival rate. There has also been evidence that using immunotherapies can decrease the recurrence rate of the cancer or increase overall survival rates.

Are there preventive measures that women can take?

Dr. Nolano: Getting mammograms annually, starting at age 40, can diagnose breast cancer early, when it’s easier to treat. Early-stage triple-negative breast cancer has better outcomes from treatment. You should also be comfortable with the way that your breasts feel, and notice if there are any changes. If you suspect that you may have a lump or something feels off, contact your doctor right away.

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