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Triple negative breast cancer stages are assigned based on the extent of the cancer at the time of diagnosis, including the size of the tumor and whether it has spread to other areas of the body. Approximately 15% of all breast cancer cases are classified as triple negative, or hormone receptor negative, which means that the cancer cells lack receptors for estrogen, progesterone and HER-2/neu hormones. While triple negative breast cancers are sometimes treated differently than hormone-receptor-positive cancers, the staging process is the same for all types of cancer.

What are the stages of triple negative breast cancer?

Breast cancers are typically staged using a numerical scale that ranges from zero to four, with higher numbers indicating progressively larger and more invasive cancers. Triple negative and other types of breast cancer stages include:

  • Stage 0 – Abnormal cells are confined to the milk ducts or lobes
  • Stage 1 – Small, localized cancers that have not spread beyond a single, nearby lymph node
  • Stage 2 – Moderate, regional cancers that have not spread beyond the lymph nodes in the underarm area
  • Stage 3 – Regionally advanced cancers that have spread beyond the breast but have not metastasized to distant organs
  • Stage 4 – Metastatic malignancies that have spread to distant organs

How does breast cancer spread?

As was mentioned above, breast cancer can spread to distant areas of the body. How exactly does this happen? First, some of the cancerous cells break away from the original tumor. Then, they attach themselves to the outer wall of either a blood vessel or a lymph vessel. Once the cancer cells penetrate this outer wall, they can begin flowing with blood (in the case of a blood vessel) or lymphatic fluid (in the case of a lymph vessel) and eventually reach another organ or lymph node.

Where will breast cancer spread to first?

Cancer generally first spreads to the lymph node that’s closest to the original tumor (also referred to as the sentinel node). With breast cancer, this lymph node is typically located in the underarm area.

In more advanced cases of breast cancer, the malignancy will travel to distant areas of the body via the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. When breast cancer reaches this stage, it’s most likely to spread to the:

  • Lymph nodes
  • Bones (most commonly the ribs, spine, pelvis and long arm and leg bones)
  • Liver
  • Lungs
  • Brain

How to know if breast cancer has spread

Patient looking at tablet with cancer resultsThe only way to truly know whether cancer has spread is to consult with a trained medical provider. With that being said, certain symptoms can suggest that breast cancer has spread to another area of the body. These symptoms will vary depending on the body part being affected. For example:

  • Bones – If breast cancer has spread to the bones, it can cause sudden bone pain that persists or worsens even when treated with rest or conservative techniques, as well as numbness or muscle weakness within an arm or leg. Metastasis to a bone can also increase calcium levels within the blood, which can cause fatigue, dehydration, nausea and reduced appetite.
  • Liver – When breast cancer travels to the liver, it can lead to a host of issues, including pain and swelling (near the right shoulder, under the ribs or in the midsection), reduced appetite, nausea, vomiting, unexplained weight loss, persistent hiccups, yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice), anemia, overwhelming fatigue, drowsiness and confusion.
  • Lungs – If breast cancer spreads to a lung, someone may experience lung pain, coughing (sometimes accompanied by blood or mucus), wheezing and shortness of breath.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and you begin experiencing any of these symptoms—or any other noticeable symptoms—you should reach out to your physician as soon as possible so that they can order any necessary diagnostic testing and confirm whether your cancer has metastasized.

Triple negative breast cancer treatment at Moffitt

The Don & Erika Wallace Comprehensive Breast Program at Moffitt Cancer Center offers a full range of advanced treatments for all stages and types of breast cancer, including triple negative. While patients with hormone-receptor-negative cancers do not benefit from hormonal therapy, other treatment options such as surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are often recommended. At Moffitt, each patient’s treatment plan is developed with input from a tumor board comprised of a multispecialty team of cancer experts. To ensure the best possible patient care, this knowledgeable group meets weekly to review the each patient’s progress and fine-tune the treatment plan for our patients as necessary.

For more information about triple negative breast cancer stages, call 1-888-663-3488 or fill out a new patient registration form. When you reach out to Moffitt, you can expect to be connected with a cancer expert in just one day. We’re proud to deliver nationally ranked care in new and transformative ways, and in order to provide patients with the rapid care they deserve, we’ve disrupted the traditional patient care model. Our one-day turnaround time is faster than that of any other cancer hospital across the country.