When a Loved One Has Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Understanding more about this disease can help you be more supportive

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If you are caring for a loved one diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), you are probably wondering how to support them. You may not be familiar with this subtype of cancer—or even cancer in general.

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A good place to start is by learning all you can about this type of cancer, including what your loved one might experience during and after treatment.

Understanding what it means to have triple-negative breast cancer will help you address your loved one's needs as well as empower you to find support for yourself as a caregiver.

Understanding TNBC

Unlike other kinds of breast cancer, triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t have estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, or HER2 receptors (the proteins that fuel the growth of breast cancer).

The term "triple-negative" means a breast cancer is estrogen-negativeprogesterone-negative, and HER2-negative.

Approximately 10-20% of diagnosed breast cancers are triple-negative. Younger women, women of African, Latino, or Caribbean descent, and those with the BRCA mutations are more likely to be diagnosed with TNBC.

Triple-negative breast cancers tend to be more aggressive and spread more quickly than other types of breast cancer, making them challenging to treat. Chemotherapy is the main treatment for TNBC.

While targeted therapy given during or after active treatment can help prevent recurrence in other forms of breast cancer, this is not the case for TNBC.

Treatments that target specific receptors won't work for cancers where the receptors are absent, as in the case of triple-negative breast cancer.

As such, many common drugs used to treat breast cancer, such as tamoxifen and Herceptin (trastuzumab), do not effectively treat TNBC.

Research is ongoing to find targeted therapies for triple-negative breast cancer, but there are currently none available.

Consequently, people diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer often fear cancer recurrence following the end of active treatment. Research has shown that the risk of a recurrence is highest in the first five years after diagnosis. After five years, the risk of recurrence for TNBC decreases.

What You Can Do

Even though family and friends are considered "informal caregivers" (in the sense that they are not specially trained), they tend to take on the majority of caregiving responsibilities.

According to a report from the American Cancer Society, informal caregivers may spend up to eight hours a day for at least a full year providing care for someone with cancer.

Caregiving can take many forms. The level of care needed will depend on the person's individual needs, as well as the severity of their illness and duration of treatment.

For example, if your loved one is diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, they might need some help with practical concerns, but won't require in-home physical care.


Before treatment begins, discuss some of the ways you plan to help with your loved one. Ways you can support them in the pre-treatment phase could include:

  • Taking notes during meetings with physicians
  • Completing insurance claims and other paperwork
  • Helping your loved one apply for financial assistance
  • Researching breast cancer surgeons and oncologists with extensive experience in treating people with triple-negative breast cancer
  • Providing transportation to and home from appointments
  • Shopping for wigs and other head coverings (if they are preparing for chemotherapy-induced hair loss)
  • Prepping living space for optimum convenience and comfort during treatment
  • Listening to your loved one’s fears without trying to control the conversation

One of the most valuable things you can do for a loved one with cancer is to provide emotional support. Sometimes, what your loved one will need most is for you to just listen.

Allowing your loved one to react to and process their cancer diagnosis in whatever way is natural for them (be it crying or getting angry or both) and will help reassure them that they do not have to go through the experience alone.

During Treatment

Treatment for triple-negative breast cancer is generally aggressive. Side effects of treatment may be intense and prolonged. Your loved one may be most in need of your help and support when they are feeling the physical and emotional impact of treatment.

Ways you can support your loved one while they are receiving treatment include:

  • Being a “chemo buddy” who stays with your loved one during the long hours of treatment
  • Running errands
  • Providing childcare
  • Assisting with household chores
  • Taking them to appointments and bringing them home
  • Giving your loved one a "time out" from all things breast cancer, like seeing a movie, going out to lunch, or having a shopping trip
  • Visiting them at home when they aren't feeling up to going out but would like company or someone to talk to
  • Regularly calling, texting, emailing, or even sending handwritten notes and thoughtful gifts to remind your friend you're thinking of them and help lift their spirits
  • Letting them know you can be their “go-to” person for emotional support throughout treatment and after it

Taking Care of Yourself

How much help your loved one needs from you will depend on how they respond to treatment, the other types of assistance they're receiving, your and their responsibility load, and other factors.

Someone with triple-negative breast cancer may need several hours of help during the day. If you are the primary person caring for your loved one, you'll want to find ways to manage stress and avoid caregiver burnout.

The Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies in the United States to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a spouse, parent, or child.

If you will be caring for a family member, discuss your needs for time off with your boss and your employer's human resources department. This will help protect your job while you are on unpaid leave to provide caregiving.

A social worker at the hospital or treatment center where your loved one is receiving care is also an essential part of your team. In addition to helping you learn to cope with stress, a social worker can also connect you with community resources.

Community-based services you may be able to access include:

A Word From Verywell

If your loved one has triple-negative breast cancer, don’t try to do all the caregiving on your own. Ask for help even before you feel you need it.

You'll also want to make sure you know the signs of caregiver burnout and have a plan in place to provide you with support and respite when you need a break. By taking care of yourself, you can be a better and stronger caregiver.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you support a loved one with triple-negative breast cancer?

    Being there and keeping your word are the two most important things. Lending an ear is often more important than giving advice; try to do so without judgment and respect your loved one’s treatment decisions. Breast cancer is fraught with uncertainty, so don’t add to the uncertainty by backing away or being undependable.

  • What are practical ways to support someone with breast cancer?

    During cancer treatment and recovery, your loved one will likely be stressed, fatigued, and less able to cope with everyday tasks. To help ease the burden:

    • Offer to do shopping, cooking, housekeeping, or childcare.
    • Help with insurance claims, accounts, and other paperwork.
    • Sit in on appointments, taking notes when needed.
    • Provide transportation to and from appointments.
    • Help your loved one with scheduling and reminders. 
  • How can I better cope as a breast cancer caregiver?

    Firstly, don’t go it alone; recruit others to assist you, and delegate tasks to friends and family members. Don’t try to make everything right; accept that there will be glitches and setbacks. And, finally, don’t take it personally if your loved one gets moody or angry; make room for those emotions and remind yourself where they are coming from.

  • Where do I find support as a breast cancer caregiver?

    Many cancer treatment centers offer caregiver support groups, while the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Support Network can connect you with caregivers online. You can also support yourself by taking time off to see a movie or have lunch with other people. Explore activities that give you a sense of accomplishment, like exercise or finishing a project.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Schulz R, Tompkins CA. Informal Caregivers in the United States: Prevalence, Caregiver Characteristics, and Ability to Provide Care. In: National Research Council (US) Committee on the Role of Human Factors in Home Health Care. The Role of Human Factors in Home Health Care: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: National Academies Press (US); 2010.

  7. Breastcancer.org. Six tips for caregivers from people living with metastatic breast cancer.

  8. American Cancer Society. If you're about to become a cancer caregiver.

By Jean Campbell, MS
Jean Campbell, MS, is a breast cancer survivor and advocate, and the founding director of the American Cancer Society Patient Navigator Program.