When a Loved One Has Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Understanding more about this disease can help you be more supportive

In This Article

Woman Comforting Daughter with TNBC
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If you are or planning to be a caregiver for a loved one recently diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), learning about this subtype of breast cancer will help you better understand your loved one’s needs and how you can be the most help.

Understanding TNBC

This cancer is dubbed "triple-negative" because it is estrogen-negativeprogesterone-negative, and HER2-negative. Triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t have estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, or HER2 receptors, which are the proteins that fuel the growth of breast cancer.

Triple-negative breast cancers tend to be more aggressive and spread quicker than most other types of breast cancer.

Up to 20 percent of breast cancers are triple-negative. TNBC is diagnosed more often in younger women, women of African, Latino, or Caribbean descent, and those with the BRCA mutations.

Breast cancers that are estrogen receptor-positive, progesterone receptor-positive, or HER2-positive respond to targeted treatments that are taken after the end of active treatment as additional protection against having a recurrence.

Drugs such as tamoxifen, which targets the estrogen receptor, and Herceptin (trastuzumab), which targets HER2, are not effective in treating triple-negative breast cancer.

While research is ongoing to find targeted therapies for triple-negative breast cancer, none are currently available to offer additional protection against recurrence.

Consequently, women and men diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer often have a significant fear of recurrence following the end of active treatment.

The risk of a recurrence is greatest in the first five years after being diagnosed. After that time, the risk of recurrence goes down.

While TNBC may be more difficult to treat, chemotherapy has proven a successful treatment for most triple-negative breast cancers.

What You Can Do

Caregiving can take many forms. If a woman is diagnosed with an early-stage breast cancer, her needs may include occasional help with practical concerns and not in-home physical care.

Pre-Treatment

Ways you can be of assistance before treatment begins include:

  • Note taking during meetings with physicians to discuss treatment
  • Completing insurance claims and other paperwork
  • Researching potential surgeons and oncologists with extensive experience in treating women with triple negative breast cancer
  • Getting to and home from appointments
  • Applying for financial assistance
  • Shopping for a wig or other head coverings
  • Prepping living space for optimum convenience and comfort during treatment
  • Listening to your loved one’s fears without trying to control the conversation
  • Giving emotional support by allowing the person to cry, be angry, or have other reactions to her diagnosis; reassure that reactions are understandable, and that you are there for your loved one.

During Treatment

Treatment for triple-negative breast cancer is generally aggressive. As such, your loved one may deal with a significant number of effects as a result

You can help by:

  • Being a “chemo buddy” and keeping your loved one company during the long treatment hours
  • Running errands
  • Providing child care
  • Assisting with household chores
  • Transporting her to and from medical visits
  • Accompanying your loved one on a time out from all things breast cancer, such as a movie, lunch, or a shopping trip
  • Frequently visiting during the times when she is not up to going out, but needs a friend
  • Calling regularly, texting, and sending emails or funny cards reminding her you are there for her and to lift her spirits
  • Being a “go-to” person for emotional support

Take Care of Yourself

Some with triple-negative breast cancer may need help for several hours or more during the day. This may depend on one's response to treatment, extent of other assistance, responsibility load, and so on. If you are going to be the primary person to take this on, remember that you also need to take care of yourself in this time to avoid burnout.

Part of the Family and Medical Leave Act requires that U.S. companies allow family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, each year, to care for a husband or wife, parent, or child. If you are employed and caring for a family member, speak with your boss and human resources department about protecting your job while taking unpaid leave to be a caregiver.

You may also want to talk with the social worker at the hospital or treatment center where your loved one is being cared for and ask about ways you can manage stress and get assistance with things cancer-related, including referrals to community-based organizations that provide:

  • Child care assistance so you can shop, run errands, or just have time for yourself
  • Financial assistance for caregivers
  • Assistance with housework
  • Meal delivery service for cancer patients that is free or offered at low cost
  • Online or phone counseling services to discuss concerns and give you support
  • Support groups for caregivers

A Word From Verywell

While helping with the practical aspects of care is important, the emotional reassurance that can come from an informed and understanding caregiver, at a very frightening time, is invaluable. Most importantly, don’t try to do all the caregiving yourself. Reach out to friends, family, neighbors, and community groups and ask for help.

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