Some breast cancer cells have hormone or protein receptors that affect how the cancer grows.

What are receptors?

Breast cancer cells may have receptors (proteins) that hormones or a protein called HER2 can attach to and encourage the cells to grow. A pathologist tests the cancer cells that were taken during the biopsy or surgery for these receptors.

The results help you and your doctor decide on the most effective treatment for you.

Hormone receptors

Hormones help control how cells grow and what they do in the body. Hormones, particularly oestrogen, can encourage breast cancer cells to grow.

Breast cancer that has receptors for the hormone oestrogen is called oestrogen receptor-positive (ER-positive) breast cancer. The term ER is used because the American spelling of oestrogen is estrogen. About 70% of breast cancers are ER-positive. Hormonal therapies work well for ER-positive breast cancer.

Breast cancer that does not have hormone receptors is called oestrogen receptor-negative (ER-negative) breast cancer.

Breast cancer cells may also have receptors for the hormone progesterone (PR-positive).

Receptors for HER2

Some breast cancers have too much of a protein (receptor) called HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) on the surface of their cells. This is called HER2-positive breast cancer. The extra HER2 protein encourages the cancer cells to divide and grow.

Between 15 and 20 out of every 100 women with breast cancer (15 to 20%) have HER2-positive cancers.

Specific targeted therapy drugs are used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer. They lock on to the HER2 protein and stop the cells dividing and growing.

Triple negative breast cancer

Cancer that does not have receptors for either HER2 or the hormones oestrogen and progesterone is called triple negative breast cancer. It affects up to 1 in 5 women (15 to 20%) with breast cancer and is more common in younger women.

How we can help

Macmillan Cancer Support Line
The Macmillan Support Line offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones. If you need to talk, we'll listen.
0808 808 00 00
Monday - Friday, 9am - 5pm
Email us
Get in touch via this form
Chat online
Monday - Friday, 9am - 5pm
Online Community
An anonymous network of people affected by cancer which is free to join. Share experiences, ask questions and talk to people who understand.
Help in your area
What's going on near you? Find out about support groups, where to get information and how to get involved with Macmillan where you live.