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Navigating Treatments and Prognosis for Stage 3 Breast Cancer

Editor’s Note: This resource, Navigating Treatments and Prognosis for Stage 3 Breast Cancer, was originally published by MyHealthTeam.

During a breast cancer diagnosis, your doctor will determine the stage of your cancer. Stages range from 0 to 4, based on the size of the breast tumor and whether the cancer has spread to other organs. If your doctor determines you have stage 3 breast cancer, that indicates you have advanced breast cancer that has begun to impact the tissue surrounding the breast.

Knowing the stage can help your doctor choose the best treatment and predict your prognosis (estimated outlook).

How Is Breast Cancer Stage Determined?

Breast cancer is staged using the TNM staging system, where TNM stands for tumor, node, metastasis. The system looks at the following:

  • Tumor — How large is the primary tumor?
  • Node — Are there cancer cells in nearby or distant lymph nodes?
  • Metastasis — Has the cancer metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body?

A higher degree of cancer spread corresponds to more advanced-stage disease. Understanding the nature of the disease and determining the best treatment options also requires additional information, such as:

  • Hormone receptor status — Does the cancer contain estrogen receptors (ERs) or progesterone receptors (PRs), which are types of proteins?
  • Tumor grade — How do the abnormal cancer cells look compared to the normal cells?
  • Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) status — How high are your levels of the protein HER2?

What Is Stage 3 Breast Cancer?

Also called locally advanced breast cancer, stage 3 breast cancer is a more advanced form of invasive breast cancer. Cancer cells have spread from the milk ducts into the nearby lymph nodes, the skin of the breast, or the chest wall.

Stage 3 breast cancer may further be classified into substages — stage 3A, 3B, or 3C — depending on the size of the breast tumor and the extent of the cancer spread. Notably, breast cancer stages are sometimes referred to using Roman numerals, such as stage III instead of stage 3.

Stage 3A Breast Cancer

Stage 3A breast cancer refers to one of the following situations:

  • The doctor doesn’t find a tumor in the breast, or if there is a tumor, it may be of any size. Additionally, cancer is found in four to nine axillary lymph nodes (those that are in the armpit region) or in the lymph nodes closest to the breastbone
  • The tumor is larger than 5 centimeters, and there are small groups of breast cancer cells between 0.2 millimeters and 2 millimeters in size in the lymph nodes.
  • The tumor is larger than 5 centimeters, and the cancer has spread to one to three axillary lymph nodes or to the lymph nodes near the breastbone.

Stage 3B Breast Cancer

In stage 3B breast cancer, the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and the chest wall, referring to the protective structures around the lungs. The cancer is also in the skin of the breast, resulting in ulcers or swelling.

Stage 3C Breast Cancer

In stage 3C breast cancer, there may be no sign of cancer in the breast. If there is a tumor, it may be any size and may have spread to the chest wall and/or the skin of the breast. Additionally, the cancer must have spread to one or more of the following places:

  • Ten or more axillary lymph nodes
  • Lymph nodes above or below the collarbone
  • The axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone

Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Stage 3 breast cancer is classified as inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) when the cancer cells block vessels in the skin of the breast, causing the skin to feel warm and change in appearance.

Treatments for Stage 3 Breast Cancer

Stage 3 breast cancer treatment often starts with chemotherapy, followed by surgery. For cancers with certain genetic mutations, targeted drugs are also used in treatment.


Chemotherapy is often the first approach for treating stage 3 breast cancer. Chemotherapy is usually administered as neoadjuvant therapy, meaning it is given prior to surgery. This approach is beneficial in that it can:

  • Shrink the tumor to make it easier to remove
  • Test that a particular chemotherapy is effective
  • In some cases, allow for a less extensive surgical procedure

Mastectomy or Lumpectomy

mastectomy, which is the removal of the breast tissue, is often required to treat stage 3 breast cancer. Alternatively, a lumpectomy — also referred to as breast-conserving surgery or partial mastectomy — involves the removal of only the breast tumor and some of the surrounding normal tissue.

Many people with stage 3 breast cancer are not eligible for a lumpectomy and likely need a mastectomy to get rid of the tumor completely. However, if neoadjuvant chemotherapy can shrink the tumor enough, a lumpectomy might become a viable option.

Following surgery, some people may choose to have reconstructive surgery to restore the appearance of their breasts.


Radiation therapy is often administered following an operation to kill off any remaining breast cancer cells that may have been missed by treatment.

Lymph Node Dissection

Lymph nodes containing cancer cells must also be removed. An axillary lymph node dissection is done to remove the lymph nodes in the armpit. The procedure is usually performed at the same time as a mastectomy.

Hormonal Therapy

Some breast cancers contain proteins called hormone receptors on the surface of breast cancer cells. The hormone receptors that play a role in breast cancer progression are the estrogen receptors and progesterone receptors.

Hormone receptor-positive stage 3 breast cancers can be treated with hormonal therapy drugs such as tamoxifen or exemestane (sold as Aromasin), which specifically target the hormone receptors.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy drugs work by stopping the function of a particular protein or group of proteins. HER2 is a protein that is present at high levels in some breast cancers and affects how the cancer grows. HER2-positive stage 3 cancers may be treated with drugs that specifically target the HER2 protein.


If breast cancer cells are negative for ER, PR, and HER2, the cancer is called triple-negative breast cancer. Triple-negative breast cancer is difficult to treat effectively with standard treatments, so newer forms of treatment like immunotherapy may be used to improve outcomes.

Immunotherapy drugs work by interacting with a person’s immune system so that it can recognize and fight the cancer cells. Pembrolizumab (sold as Keytruda) is an immunotherapy drug that can be used along with chemotherapy to treat triple-negative stage 3 breast cancer that has returned or spread after surgery.

Prognosis for Stage 3 Breast Cancer

Stage 3 breast cancer is an advanced stage disease, so prompt treatment is crucial for improving the prognosis.

Overall, stage 3 breast cancer has a somewhat favorable prognosis with a five-year survival rate as high as 86 percent. This means 86 percent of people with the condition live at least five years after being diagnosed. This rate can vary depending on the exact substage of cancer. For instance, IBC has a markedly lower survival rate, closer to 41 percent.

Hormonal therapy and other targeted drugs have helped to improve outcomes for cancers with specific genetic features. Some people may be encouraged to participate in clinical trials, which can advance the discovery of new effective treatments for stage 3 breast cancer.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 58,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.

Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyBCTeam.

What Myeloma Patients Should Know About Treatment Monitoring

What Myeloma Patients Should Know About Treatment Monitoring from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How do you know if your myeloma treatment is working? Dr. Joshua Richter, a myeloma specialist, reviews how treatment response is measured in myeloma and why it’s important to share any symptoms or side effects with the healthcare team.

Dr. Joshua Richter is director of Multiple Myeloma at the Blavatnik Family – Chelsea Medical Center at Mount Sinai. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Medicine in The Tisch Cancer Institute, Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology. Learn more about Dr. Richter, here.

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So, once treatment has begun, how do you know if it’s working? 

Dr. Richter:

Absolutely. So, the majority of myeloma patients are what we call “secretory.” And by “secretory,” it means that the cancer cells secrete a protein that we can measure in the blood either an M-spike, which is an intact immunoglobulin like IgG and kappa, or a free light chain. It doesn’t make that IgG part, just a free kappa or free lambda. And basically, when these protein levels go up, we know the cancer cells are growing. When these go down, we know we’re killing the cancer cells. And we actually call your remission based on how much we lower it.  

If we lower it 25 to 49 percent, that’s an MR or minor response, or minor remission. 50 to 89 percent is a PR, partial response, partial remission. 90 to 99 percent is a VGPR, a very good partial remission, and then all gone in the blood and then we do a bone marrow is a CR or complete remission.  

For some people, their disease can be non-secretory where the cancer cells don’t make that protein anymore.  

And for those people, we need to do regular imaging to see if they have growths of myeloma we call plasmacytomas, or unfortunately, we need to do regular bone marrow biopsies to see how much of the bad cells are growing inside the marrow. 


All right. How do you know when it’s time to switch treatment? 

Dr. Richter:

So, in general, when patients fulfill the criteria for what we call “progressive disease” or PD, that’s the time to change, or intolerance that regardless of how we dose adjust, dose hold or add supportive care, it’s not tolerable for a patient to continue.  

Intolerance is a very personal thing. There are things that certain people are willing to tolerate and others not. So, we try to adjust that. Just like we have criteria for response, PR, VGPR, we have criteria for progression. And in general, it’s a 25 percent increase from your baseline and 0.5 increase in your M-spike or 100 increase in your light chains. So, when the disease numbers are going up, we tend to switch.  

Now, people may say, “But I feel fine,” and a lot of this is because you’re diagnosed with an amount of disease up here. We get you in remission, you’re down here. And once you go like this, we can see the writing on the wall and we’d rather be proactive than reactive. So, instead of waiting until the numbers get up here to cause trouble, once it goes from there to there, we intervene, change therapy to bring it back down. 


Dr. Richter, why is it essential for patients to share any issues they may be having with their healthcare team?  

Dr. Richter:

It is absolutely crucial because some things that may be very, very minor to them may be the tip of the iceberg of something very, very worrisome that we really need to investigate because sometimes, little problems are little now, and over time, they can become problems that we can’t so easily reverse. So, things like neuropathy, fatigue, or actually better yet, what I tell my patients is, “You know your body. If there is something out of the ordinary, big or small, let us know.”  

And I would way rather a patient tell me 10 things in a row that mean nothing than not tell me about that one thing that means something.  

So, for example, one of the disorders that’s associated with myeloma is called amyloidosis.  

And when amyloid attacks the kidneys, you start to have protein in the urine, and this looks like bubbles, like foam in the urine. So, if someone has no foam when they urinate, and then over a period of months to years, they’re starting to notice lots of foam, tell me because that means we may need to look for things like amyloid.  

So, really any time something changes.