Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: A Big Fat Zero

Breast cancer often forges unlikely friendships via internet connections.

It's uncanny how breast cancer can forge a sisterhood between complete strangers, but that's exactly what happened between my new friend and me. I won’t share her name in order to protect her privacy, but we met online through a breast cancer website. A casual chat allowed us to discover that we’d been diagnosed with breast cancer the same year and within just a few weeks of each other. She was a young mother. I was much older. She had triple-negative breast cancer. I had invasive ductal carcinoma. She was stage 1 while I was stage 2B. We were different in so many ways and yet, we were the same. We were both fighting to survive. As we chatted, we realized we were kindred spirits. Our relationship grew as we continued to stay in contact for the days and months that followed. Before we knew it, we’d been corresponding for two years. We learned a lot about each other over that time. We grew very close.

As her cancer progressed, I watched videos she’d posted on YouTube. The recordings allowed me to peek into her life and become more intimately involved. She was open and honest about her feelings. She was more vocal than I about her anger toward cancer. As I kept up with her frequent online postings, I felt like I was watching a family member share upcoming tests and treatments. I was honored she allowed me to be part of her journey.

Months passed and it was evident her treatment was becoming more aggressive. Her cancer metastasized. Soon she was calling herself a Metavivor, a survivor living with metastatic breast cancer. Although cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, I didn’t consider myself metastatic, but medically speaking, I was.

I cried as I watched the video about cancer spreading to her brain. She bravely shared scans and jokingly laughed about the number of tumors that had popped up in her head. As I listened to her talk about her new course of treatment, I worried. I began to think about my own circumstances. I began to think about the possibility of recurrence. More and more videos were posted as my friend continued to share her story. Soon her husband and children were included and I realized her condition was growing more severe. When her spouse started to post news on her social media accounts, I read between the lines. The battle was coming to an end. Cancer was going to win.

My lovely friend died a few days ago, and it hit me extremely hard. At first I was very sad. I knew her husband and children were devastated. It just wasn’t fair! Then I became angry. Why did cancer have to take her life? She’d fought valiantly and had been through so much. She’d given everything to live for her family and it just didn’t matter.

Triple-negative. It doesn’t make sense. You’d think a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer would be a good thing. Three zeros! But it’s not. According to an article on the Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s website, “Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), the cancer cells do not contain receptors for estrogen, progesterone, or HER2. About 10 — 20 percent of all breast cancers are triple-negative. This type of breast cancer is usually invasive and usually begins in the breast ducts. Healthy breast cells contain receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone. They also contain receptors for a protein called HER2, which stimulates normal cell growth. About two out of three women with breast cancer have cells that contain receptors for estrogen and progesterone, and about 20 – 30 percent of breast cancers have too many HER2 receptors.

Breast cancer that is estrogen receptor (ER) and progesterone receptor (PR) positive can be treated with hormone therapies. Breast cancer with excess amounts of HER2 can be treated with anti-HER2 drugs such as trastuzumab. In women with triple-negative breast cancer, the malignant cells do not contain receptors for estrogen, progesterone or HER2. Breast cancer that is ER, PR and HER2 negative cannot be treated with hormone therapies or medications that work by blocking HER2, such as trastuzumab. Fortunately, triple-negative breast cancer can be treated with other drugs, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and non-HER2 targeted therapy.”

No breast cancer diagnosis is a good thing, although triple-negative seems to be a more challenging type of cancer to treat. I’m definitely not a medical professional, but I know some forms of breast cancer are more aggressive than others, and it seems triple-negative falls into that category. I feel a little guilty that I only had invasive ductal carcinoma but at the same time, I’m grateful I wasn’t diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. I don’t understand why a beautiful, vibrant young mother was taken and I was left behind but I’m so thankful I was able to call her friend. My life was enriched through knowing her. Her wit and humor made cancer just a little more bearable and for that, I’m extremely grateful.