Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC): What We Should Know

With Triple Negative Breast Cancer Day (March 3) having just passed, we’re, we're sharing important information on this lesser-known yet serious form of invasive breast cancer. Our hope is that by understanding the risk factors for Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), becoming aware of possible symptoms and if necessary, seeking timely medical attention, we can improve our outcomes and the outcomes of those we love. We can also be better prepared to offer support to others on this specific breast cancer journey. Let's explore key facts about TNBC.  

What is Triple Negative Breast Cancer?

TNBC refers to a subtype of breast cancer in which the tumor cells lack expression of three common receptors: estrogen (ER), progesterone (PR) and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). The absence of all of these receptors makes TNBC difficult to treat with hormone therapies or drugs targeting HER2 (protocols typically used for cancers that are ER, PR or HER2 positive), thereby making treatment options more limited. TNBC is considered to be a more aggressive form of breast cancer and can grow and spread faster than other subtypes. 

Who is at Risk?

While TNBC can affect anyone, certain factors may increase our risk:

  1. Age: TNBC often occurs in younger, premenopausal women, under the age of 50.

  2. Genetics: Individuals with mutations in the BRCA1 gene are at higher risk.

  3. Ethnicity: Studies suggest higher incidence rates among Black and Latina women.  According to the American Cancer Society, triple-negative breast cancer represents 10% of breast cancers overall, but nearly 20% among Black women, who are affected more than any other group.

  4. Family History: A family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer may elevate the risk.

  5. Obesity: There's evidence linking obesity to an increased risk of TNBC

Understanding the Symptoms

Symptoms of TNBC are similar to other forms of breast cancer and may include:

  • A lump or mass in the breast
  • Swelling or thickening of breast tissue
  • Changes in breast size or shape
  • Nipple changes, such as inversion or discharge
  • Skin changes on the breast, such as redness or dimpling

However, it's important to note that TNBC is most frequently detected during regular breast screenings, when no symptoms have presented yet. 

Early Detection & Diagnosis

Regular breast self-exams, mammograms and clinical breast exams are essential for early detection. If any unusual changes are noticed, it's important to follow up with a healthcare professional promptly. Diagnosis of TNBC involves a combination of imaging tests, biopsies and laboratory analyses to confirm the subtype and stage of cancer.

Find a Doctor Who Specializes in TNBC

When seeking medical care, it's critical to find a team with expertise in treating TNBC. Online resources, local hospitals and physician referrals can help identify these providers. If there are no local centers with TNBC expertise nearby, it may be necessary to to seek care from specialists outside of our immediate geographical location, to ensure comprehensive evaluation and personalized treatment planning.

Treatment Options

Treatment regimens for TNBC typically involve a multifaceted approach encompassing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy, administered before surgery, has shown promise in enhancing survival outcomes, particularly when achieving a pathologic complete response. Additionally, emerging therapies like PARP inhibitors and immunotherapy hold potential for targeted intervention, offering renewed hope in the fight against TNBC.

Alongside active treatment, It's also important to nurture our mind and body. Exercise, when we're up to it, meditation, eating healthy foods and connecting with community have all shown to be positive practices for helping manage the emotional and psychological impacts of treatment. We're also big fans of a gratitude practice - finding at least one thing to be positive about each day - to help keep spirits up and optimism at bay. Treatment can feel like a marathon, so doing our best to take it one day at a time, with tons of self-compassion, is essential.  

Support & Resources

Remember: it's more than ok to ask for help. Our friends and family may have the best of intentions, but they also may not know exactly how to help. Many patients also worry about burdening or frightening loved ones with deep fears and experiences. This is where finding a community of other women can be invaluable. From online communities to local support groups, connecting with others who can empathize and understand what we're going through can make a huge difference in helping us not feel as isolated or afraid. Counseling, nutritional guidance and complementary therapies are also good complements to medical treatment and can improve quality of life. For more information in TNBC, go to Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation