One of the realities of breast cancer as we understand it today is that breast cancer in not just one disease, but rather a group of diseases, each presenting unique challenges. Breast cancer comes in many shape and sizes - and types. Breast cancer commonly arises from the ducts of the breast, but can also arise from the breast lobules - a different form but still breast cancer. Biologically, breast cancers can have unique markers that have implications for forms of treatment and which can indicate level of aggression of the tumor.
Chances are you may have heard the term “triple negative” come up in discussions on breast cancer. This doesn’t refer to location or stage (which we have previously addressed), but rather refers to a pattern of expression of tumor receptors. Breast cancer cells have what are called “receptors” or places on the cells that interact with certain hormones or growth factors. A pathologist, a specialized physician who analyzes tissues and cells, will run special tests on breast cancers to determine their receptor status. If a breast cancer lacks three receptor sites which are commonly analyzed, the breast cancer is referred to as “triple negative.” This group makes up about 15-20% of breast cancer cases in the US. Triple negative cancers are more common in younger women with breast cancer. They are also more common in African-American women.
What does having a triple negative breast cancer mean? Triple negative cancers can be more aggressive, with a less favorable prognosis or outlook in the first five years after diagnosis in particular. This seems to be related to this specific tumor type, but may in part be related to treatment differences. There are some forms of treatment which are directed to the receptors (things like tamoxifen) - breast cancers like triple negatives that lack those receptors will not respond to those drugs. Fewer options are therefore available.
Breast cancer is a complex disease with many faces. Further research into triple-negative cancers and development of new treatment strategies are vital and are on-going. There isn’t enough known about it, and how to fight it. And there are extraordinary people working very hard to change that. Tomorrow, we’ll tell you about some of them.
Originally published 12/16/13 on mammographykc.com.