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 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 compared to other types of breast cancer, the symptoms of triple-negative breast cancer are similar.

a doctor screening for triple-negative breast cancer

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Frequent Symptoms

While triple-negative breast cancer is a unique type of breast cancer, 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

In cases where triple-negative breast cancer goes undetected, breast cancer can become metastatic, spreading to areas like the bones, lungs, brain, or liver. When this happens (and depending on what area of the body the cancer has spread to) symptoms include:

  • Back and joint pain.
  • Trouble urinating, both incontinence and not being able to urinate.
  • Numbness or weakness in the body.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Abdominal pain or bloating.
  • Constant nausea.
  • Jaundice.
  • Vison problems.
  • Seizures.
  • Headaches.
  • Unexplained weight loss.

Complications/Sub-Group Indications

Any complications from triple-negative breast cancer will depend on the type of treatment used against the disease. In the case of patients undergoing a mastectomy, the complications may include breast soreness, hardness resulting from scar tissue formation at the incision site, infection or bleeding, or phantom breast pain in the area of the breast that has been removed.

Patients may also find it beneficial to seek counseling to help cope with the loss of their breast, or to help them throughout their treatment.

Other issues that may stem from triple-negative breast cancer have to deal with the side effects of chemotherapy treatment. One of the most noted issues is sleep disturbances in addition to fatigue, depression, and anxiety prior to breast cancer surgery up to six months after. 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 Doctor

If you notice any of the above symptoms in your breasts, such as a lump or any physical changes to your breast or nipple, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor to get it checked out. In addition, keep an eye on your breasts with self-examination, The American Cancer Society recommends women ages 45 to 54 get a mammogram every year, and women 40 to 44 should have the option to get a mammogram if they want to. Women 55 years or older can switch to a mammogram every two years or stick with a yearly exam if they prefer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is triple-negative breast cancer hard to treat?

Many of the chemotherapy 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 standard treatments for breast cancer do not work.

How is triple-negative breast cancer staged?

Exactly as other types of breast cancer are staged. It's important to note, however, 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)

A Word From Verywell

It can be unsettling to discover a lump in your breast, but it’s important to keep in mind that breasts are often lumpy, particular during a woman’s menstrual cycle, but these lumps will go away. Not all breasts feel the same, either, or one woman may have naturally lumpier breasts than another. The difference with these benign lumps is that it feels lumpy throughout as opposed to one specific spot, and it closely mirrors how your other breast feels.

If you’re concerned about any lumps in your breast, it’s always best to check it out with your doctor to rule out a more serious condition like triple-negative breast cancer. Make an appointment for peace of mind, or if you’re not old enough to get regular mammogram screenings you can have your doctor perform a breast exam during your next wellness visit to help stay on top of your breast health.

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Article Sources
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