Symptoms of Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

A lump in the breast and nipple discharge are some of the warning signs

Triple-negative breast cancer is a type of breast cancer that does not have any of the three receptors (estrogen, progesterone, and HER2) that contribute to some types of breast cancer growth. Approximately 10-20% of breast cancers are diagnosed as triple-negative breast cancer, and it’s more likely to occur in younger people, African Americans or Hispanics, and those with a BRCA1 gene mutation.

While treatment of triple-negative breast cancer is different than the treatments used for other types of breast cancer, the symptoms are similar.

a doctor screening for triple-negative breast cancer

 pixelfit/Getty Images

Frequent Symptoms

Triple-negative breast cancer is a unique type of breast cancer, but its symptoms are common to all breast cancers, including:

  • A lump or hard, dense mass in the breast or armpit area.
  • Redness, pain, irritation, or swelling in the breast.
  • A change in size or shape in the breast.
  • Nipple changes, such as an inverted nipple.
  • Flaky and peeling nipple skin.
  • Nipple discharge.

Rare Symptoms

Triple-negative breast cancer can become metastatic, spreading to areas like the bones, lungs, brain, or liver. When this happens, the symptoms that develop depend on the area of the body where cancer has spread.

Symptoms of metastases can include:

  • Back and joint pain
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Urinary retention (not being able to urinate)
  • Numbness or weakness of the body
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain or bloating
  • Nausea
  • Jaundice
  • Vision problems
  • Seizures
  • Headaches
  • Unexplained weight loss

Complications/Sub-Group Indications

Some complications from triple-negative breast cancer can develop due to the treatment that's used against the disease. Chemotherapy treatment and surgery can cause a range of side effects.

After a mastectomy, complications may include chest soreness, infection, bleeding, hardness from scar tissue formation at the incision site, or phantom breast pain in the area of the breast that has been removed.

Common problems include sleep disturbances, fatigue, depression, and anxiety prior to breast cancer surgery and up to six months after. You might find it beneficial to seek counseling to help cope with the loss of your breast or to help you talk through your emotions throughout your treatment.

In separate research, 48% of breast cancer patients reported having moderate feelings of the above issues, while 15% had high instances, resulting in a higher symptom burden and lower quality of life.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you notice a lump or any physical changes to your breast or nipple, it’s important to make an appointment with your healthcare provider to get it checked out. In addition, keep an eye on your breasts with self-examination.

The American Cancer Society recommends that females ages 45 to 54 get a mammogram every year, and females ages 40 to 44 should have the option to get a mammogram if they want to. Females 55 years or older can switch to a mammogram every two years or stick with a yearly exam if they prefer.

A Word From Verywell

It can be unsettling to discover a lump in your breast, and it’s always best to check it out with your healthcare provider to rule out a serious condition, like triple-negative breast cancer. If you’re not old enough to get regular mammogram screenings, you can have your healthcare provider perform a breast exam during your next wellness visit to help stay on top of your breast health.

It’s important to keep in mind that breasts are often lumpy, particularly later in the menstrual cycle, and that these lumps often go away.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is triple-negative breast cancer hard to treat?

    Some of the medications used to treat other types of breast cancer target hormone receptors in the cancer cells. Triple-negative breast cancer lacks those receptors, so many of the hormone therapies used for the treatment of breast cancer do not work.

  • How is triple-negative breast cancer staged?

    Triple-negative breast cancer is staged in the same way that other types of breast cancer are staged. It's important to note that in 2018, the American Joint Committee on Cancer updated the guidelines for staging breast cancer to include characteristics such as hormone receptor and HER2 status, which can point to whether or not a tumor is triple-negative.

  • What are the chances of surviving triple-negative breast cancer?

    It depends on how advanced it is. According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rate for triple-negative breast cancer is:

    • 91% if the tumor is localized (has not spread beyond the breast)
    • 65% if it's regional (has spread only to nearby tissue or lymph nodes)
    • 12% if the cancer is distant (has spread to the bones, liver, lungs or other areas of the body)
7 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.
  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Triple Negative Breast Cancer.

  2. Metastatic Breast Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Mastectomy.

  4. Van onselen C, Cooper BA, Lee K, et al. Identification of distinct subgroups of breast cancer patients based on self-reported changes in sleep disturbance. Support Care Cancer. 2012;20(10):2611-9. doi:10.1007/s00520-012-1381-3

  5. The American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer.

  6. Kalli S, Semine A, Cohen S, et al. American joint committee on cancer's staging system for breast cancer, eighth edition: what the radiologist needs to knowRadiographics. 2018;38(7):1921-1933. doi:10.1148/rg.2018180056

  7. American Cancer Society. Triple-negative breast cancer.

Additional Reading

By Colleen Travers
Colleen Travers writes about health, fitness, travel, parenting, and women’s lifestyle for various publications and brands.