Written By Ann Pietrangelo, Alina Sharon Edited By Alina Sharon Copy Edited By Irawati Elkunchwar
Nov 6, 2023 Medically Reviewed By Elizabeth Berger, MD, MS
Stage 3 breast cancer affects both the breast and the axillary lymph nodes. It is sometimes referred to as regional breast cancer. Depending on the classification, it has a 5-year survival rate of 70–86%.
Hearing you or a loved one has stage 3 breast cancer can lead to many questions — about diagnosis, survival, treatments, and more.
The first thing to know is that stage 3 breast cancer means the cancer has spread beyond the tumor in the breast to the lymph nodes. It has possibly gone to lymph nodes but hasn’t spread to nearby organs.
Doctors have previously divided stage 3 into more specific categories (3A, 3B, and 3C) and the cancer subtype, meaning which type of breast cancer you have. The breast cancer type describes how a cancer grows and what treatments are likely to be most effective.
Doctors consider stage 3 breast cancer a locally advanced but curable cancer. Your treatment options and outlook will depend on a variety of factors.
How long can you live with stage 3 breast cancer?
Survival rates can be confusing. Remember that they don’t reflect your individual circumstances. According to the Office for National Statistics U.K., the relative 5-year survival rate for stage 3 breast cancer is 70%. This means that out of 100 people with breast cancer, 70 will survive for 5 years after diagnosis.
In the United States, the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database, maintained by the National Cancer Institute, has a different classification for breast cancer. Instead of using numbers, it looks at localized, regional, and distant stages.
The most equivalent stage to stage 3 is the regional stage, meaning that the cancer has spread beyond the tumor to the structures nearby or to the lymph nodes. The relative 5-year survival rate for regional breast cancer is 86.3%. This means that out of 100 people with regional breast cancer, about 86 will survive for 5 years after diagnosis.
What determines life expectancy for stage 3 breast cancer?
The life expectancy for people with breast cancer is improving, according to the American Cancer Society. It points out that current survival rates are based on people diagnosed and treated at least 5 years ago — and treatments that have advanced over that time.
Your life expectancy with stage 3 breast cancer, or with regional breast cancer, depends on several factors, such as:
- overall health
- response to treatment
- size of tumors
You should talk with your doctor about how these factors may affect you.
How does staging relate to types of breast cancer?
Besides the cancer stage, doctors also look at the tumor grade and subtype.
Tumors are graded on a scale of 1 to 3 based on how atypical the cells appear compared to the natural cells. The higher the grade, the more aggressive the cancer, meaning that it tends to grow quickly.
The subtype is important because treatment and outlook will vary depending on which subtype of breast cancer you have. Subtypes include:
The TNM system for staging breast cancer
In 2018, the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) added the letters T, N, and M for anatomic breast cancer staging. This adds more information to a breast cancer diagnosis. Here’s what they mean:
- T (tumor): The tumor grade shows a higher number for a larger size or density.
- N (nodes): Nodes refer to lymph nodes and use the numerals 0–3 to explain how many lymph nodes are involved in the cancer.
- M (metastasis): This refers to how the cancer has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes.
The AJCC also added clarifications in staging for ER, PR, and HER2 expression and also genetic information.
This means someone diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer (or regional) can receive more information from their breast cancer staging than ever before.
No matter the stage, the best source of information about your individual outlook is your own oncology team.
Getting the right treatment and the support you need can help you navigate the challenges of receiving a diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer.
What are the treatment options for stage 3 breast cancer?
Another way a doctor may describe stage 3 breast cancer (or regional) is if it’s operable or inoperable. This will determine further treatments.
If a cancer is operable, a doctor believes that they can remove most or all of the cancer with surgery.
Inoperable cancer is still treatable with systemic therapy, but surgery isn’t the right option because doctors feel they can’t remove enough cancer cells.
Treatment options for stage 3 breast cancer may include:
- Surgery: known as a mastectomy, to remove cancerous tissue and also to remove lymph nodes
- Hormone therapy: to slow or stop the growth of cancerous cells, if hormones are driving their growth
- Chemotherapy: involves taking medications to kill fast-growing cancer cells
- Targeted therapy: uses genes to target cancer cells without harming healthy cells
Your doctor may also recommend a combination of two or more treatments.
Is inoperable breast cancer still treatable?
Although experts define stage 3C breast cancer as either operable or inoperable, an inoperable diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t get a treatment.
The term “inoperable” may mean that doctors can’t remove all the cancer in the breast and surrounding tissues through simple surgery. When they remove the breast cancer, they also remove a rim of healthy tissue around the tumor, called a margin.
To successfully remove breast cancer, there needs to be healthy tissue in all margins of the breast, from your clavicle down to a few inches below the breast mound.
It is possible for inoperable breast cancer to become operable following a treatment to shrink the cancer.
Frequently asked questions
How serious is stage 3 breast cancer?
It’s natural to want to know your outlook, but statistics don’t tell the whole story. Your breast cancer type, overall health, and many more factors may affect treatment outcomes. Having an open discussion with your healthcare team can help you best assess where you are in your cancer journey.
Is stage 3 cancer a terminal?
Whether or not stage 3 breast cancer is terminal depends on its subtype and whether the tumor is operable or inoperable. Typically, at this stage, there are more treatment options available than there would be if your cancer has spread further to other structures.
What is the outlook for breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes?
Depending on the classification, cancer that spreads to the lymph nodes but not further away can be called stage 3 or regional cancer. Different ways of classification affect the 5-year survival rates, but it is somewhere within the range of 70–86%.
If you are living with stage 3 breast cancer, support groups can be a great source of comfort as you navigate your diagnosis through your treatment and beyond.
Your doctor’s office or hospital can offer some suggestions and resources in your area. Find support from others who are living with breast cancer.
Posted in: In Treatment, Just Diagnosed, Medical/Science, Staging