Most women with triple-negative breast cancer will have a combination of surgery to remove the tumor and chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. Triple-negative breast cancers are HER2-negative, so drugs that target HER2 are not effective. Similarly, they are hormone receptor-negative, so hormone therapies that lower estrogen levels or block estrogen receptors also are not effective.

Your treatment plan will depend on several factors:

  • The stage of your cancer based on:
    • Size of the tumor
    • If cancer cells have spread outside the breast, such as to the lymph nodes
  • Type of breast cancer
  • How fast the tumor is growing
  • How likely the tumor is to grow back
  • Your age, general health and if you have reached menopause
  • If it is a new cancer or a cancer that has come back after treatment

You may need one type of treatment or several, and your treatment may change over time.

Your treatment plan also will depend on other factors, such as your overall health and personal preferences.

Surgery

The following surgeries may be performed to treat breast cancer.

Breast-conserving surgery – The cancer and some normal tissue around it are removed, but not the entire breast. Other names for this surgery include lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, segmental mastectomy, quadrantectomy, or breast-sparing surgery

Total mastectomy (also called simple mastectomy) – The whole breast that has cancer is removed. In addition, some lymph nodes under the arm may be removed through a separate incision and tested for cancer.

Modified radical mastectomy – In this surgery, the whole breast that has cancer is removed, as well as many of the lymph nodes under the arm, the lining over the chest muscles and possibly part of the chest wall muscles.

Breast reconstruction – This is surgery to rebuild the shape of the breast after a woman has undergone a mastectomy. It may be done at the time of the mastectomy or later. The breast may be reconstructed using tissue from somewhere else in the patient’s body or using implants filled with saline or silicone gel.

Side effects of surgery depend on the type of surgery. Short-term side effects may include pain, bleeding, infection and blood clots in your legs.

Side effects of breast-conserving surgery may include:

  • Pain, tenderness or a "tugging" sensation in the breast
  • Temporary swelling
  • Hard scar tissue that forms at the surgical site
  • Change in the shape of the breast
  • Nerve pain in the chest wall, armpit and/or arm
  • Lymphedema (swelling), if lymph nodes are removed

Side effects of mastectomy may include:

  • Pain or tenderness
  • Swelling at the surgical site
  • Build-up of blood in the wound (called hematoma)
  • Build-up of clear fluid in the wound (called seroma)
  • Limited arm or shoulder movement
  • Numbness in the chest or upper arm
  • Nerve pain in the chest wall, armpit and/or arm (called post-mastectomy pain syndrome)
  • Lymphedema (swelling), if lymph nodes are removed

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy involves using a drug to kill cancer cells. Most of the time, a combination of drugs is used. They may be taken as pills or given intravenously (called an IV infusion). Chemotherapy may be used alone, but is often used with other treatments. It can be given to shrink a tumor before surgery, called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. It also can be used to kill any remaining cancer cells after surgery, called adjuvant chemotherapy. Chemotherapy treatments are given in cycles, followed by periods of rest.

Systemic chemotherapy spreads through your blood to all areas of your body. It can treat cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body (called metastasis). Regional chemotherapy is given through an artery that supplies blood to a specific area where cancer is located, such as the breast.

Because chemotherapy kills some normal cells along with cancer cells, it can have many side effects. Common ones include hair loss, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, an increased chance of infection and easy bruising or bleeding. Most of these side effects will go away after treatment. Many side effects during treatment can be managed with medication.

Clinical Trials

Many of the newest treatments for triple-negative breast cancer are given in clinical trials. These include new therapies that target specific characteristics of these cancer cells. If you qualify for a trial, you will get either the best standard treatment or a new treatment. These trials are done at research centers and university hospitals experienced in treating breast cancer.

If you qualify, you will be treated by doctors who are experts in breast cancer treatment. Treatment may be free or low-cost. However, new treatments may have unknown risks. They also might not work as well as standard treatments. It's important to discuss the risks and benefits with your treatment team.