Which threshold for ER positivity? a retrospective study based on 9639 patients

Ann Oncol. 2014 May;25(5):1004-11. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdu053. Epub 2014 Feb 20.


Background: Guidelines for the use of chemotherapy and endocrine therapy recently recommended that estrogen receptor (ER) status be considered positive if ≥1% of tumor cells demonstrate positive nuclear staining by immunohistochemistry. In clinical practice, a range of thresholds are used; a common one is 10% positivity. Data addressing the optimal threshold with regard to the efficacy of endocrine therapy are lacking. In this study, we compared patient, tumor, treatment and survival differences among breast cancer patients using ER-positivity thresholds of 1% and 10%.

Methods: The study population consisted of patients with primary breast carcinoma treated at our center from January 1990 to December 2011 and whose records included complete data on ER status. Patients were separated into three groups: ≥10% positive staining for ER (ER-positive ≥10%), 1%-9% positive staining for ER (ER-positive 1%-9%) and <1% positive staining (ER-negative).

Results: Of 9639 patients included, 80.5% had tumors that were ER-positive ≥10%, 2.6% had tumors that were ER-positive 1%-9% and 16.9% had tumors that were ER-negative. Patients with ER-positive 1%-9% tumors were younger with more advanced disease compared with patients with ER-positive ≥10% tumors. At a median follow-up of 5.1 years, patients with ER-positive 1%-9% tumors had worse survival rates than did patients with ER-positive ≥10% tumors, with and without adjustment for clinical stage and grade. Survival rates did not differ significantly between patients with ER-positive 1%-9% and ER-negative tumors.

Conclusions: Patients with tumors that are ER-positive 1%-9% have clinical and pathologic characteristics different from those with tumors that are ER-positive ≥10%. Similar to patients with ER-negative tumors, those with ER-positive 1%-9% disease do not appear to benefit from endocrine therapy; further study of its clinical benefit in this group is warranted. Also, there is a need to better define which patients of this group belong to basal or luminal subtypes.

Keywords: breast cancer; estrogen receptor; low positive; survival.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Breast Neoplasms / classification
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Breast Neoplasms / therapy
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / classification
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / metabolism*
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / mortality
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / therapy
  • Carcinoma, Intraductal, Noninfiltrating / classification
  • Carcinoma, Intraductal, Noninfiltrating / metabolism*
  • Carcinoma, Intraductal, Noninfiltrating / mortality
  • Carcinoma, Intraductal, Noninfiltrating / therapy
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant
  • Disease-Free Survival
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Kaplan-Meier Estimate
  • Middle Aged
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Young Adult


  • Receptors, Estrogen