Triple-negative breast cancer has caught the attention of major researchers throughout the world, which is a great thing—it means that we are learning more and more about how to prevent and treat this illness. The downside of the research popularity is that the media and medical journals have developed depressing and frightening catch phrases for it, such as deadly, particularly aggressive or, my favorite, a lethal triad. People who write these words do not realize that they can terrify the women who read them, hitting like a heavy thud on our hearts. Researchers are trying to define the disease. Patients are trying to beat it.
The aggressive nature of hormone-negative is a comparative measure. That is, these cancers are, in general, more aggressive than hormone-positive cancers—although, in some cases, only slightly more aggressive. And some hormone-negative cancers can actually be less aggressive than some hormone-positive cancers. Scientists work in generalizations, defining how the disease affects women as a group. Individual cases vary and, researchers increasingly say, are as unique as our DNA.
How researchers classify triple-negative, for example, can vary. My own case—negative for estrogen and her2, but weakly positive for progesterone—puts me in a fairly narrow subset. Yet I had two oncologists tell me that they classify weakly positive as a negative, meaning I would be triple-negative. Researchers disagree, usually considering any level of positive as being positive. It is possible, though, that my weakly positive progesterone put me in a less agressive subset that is so small it is seldom researched.
So let’s look at some of the data and what they mean. And rather than simply accepting the gloomy picture that is often presented, let’s approach this in the enterprising spirit of yeah, but…
It is true that hormone-negative breast cancers can be more aggressive than hormone-positive. But the majority of women who get the disease survive.
It is true that most cases of recurrence come within the first three years. But that means that those who hit five years are looking at an excellent prognosis. A better long-term prognosis, in fact, than those with hormone-positive.
It is true that triple-negative is more likely to have spread to the lymph nodes. But many women with TNBC have no positive nodes—and, if they do, they still beat the disease and survive.
I have learned to turn statistics around to improve my perspective. For example, when research says that 30 percent of the women with triple negative died in a particular study, I turn this around and realize that 70 percent of the women survived. And I plan to be one of those women. And if, in another study, a triple-negative woman faces a two-fold increased risk of death compared with hormone-positive, I look at the fact that the difference might be between a 10 percent risk of and a 20 percent risk. And, while those decreased odds are startling and sobering, they still can mean an 80 percent chance of not dying. Even starting with a poorer prognosis, the odds can still be with you.
NOTE: This is an excerpt from the book I am writing on triple-negative breast cancer.