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What is cancer staging?

Cancer staging is the process doctors use to determine the extent of a person's cancer.The higher the stage the wider the cancer has spread. Determining the proper stage is important because it affects treatment decisons. Very early localized cancers can often be treated with just surgery. As the stage increases it may be necessary to add radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other forms of treatment.

Before an oncologist can treat a patient for cancer, the stage of the cancer must be accurately assessed. To do this, various components are needed: the cancerous cells need to be identified in cellular type, location(s), size(s) and the extent of lymph node involvement. The stage of the cancer will identify how early or advanced a cancer is. Only after this evaluation can an appropriate treatment plan be proposed to a patient.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Cancer staging refers to whether a cancer has spread and if, how far; the higher the stage, the more it has spread. Watch Dr. Oz explain staging of uterine cancer.

Juliet Wilkinson
Oncology Nursing Specialist

Cancer staging provides a roadmap of the cancer. It can tell how large the cancer is, how many lymph nodes are involved and if the cancer has spread (metastasis) to other organs. For instance, when a tumor starts in the breast it is referred to as breast cancer. If the tumor spreads to other organs, such as the lungs, it is still referred to as breast cancer, with a metastasis to the lungs (not lung cancer). Staging allows a way to map that spread and the pathways of cancer within your body, which will help your doctor create a treatment plan tailored to your needs.

Dr. Dede Bonner
Health Education Specialist

Staging is a system that tells you how extensive your cancer is on the basis of established guidelines. It looks at the size of your tumor and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. Your doctor needs this information in order to plan your treatment.

The stage is based on whether or not the cancer is invasive, what the size of the tumor is, how many lymph nodes are involved, and whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of your body. Staging a breast tumor can involve a complex calculation and is one of the most important factors in determining your treatment options and prognosis.

The 10 Best Questions for Surviving Breast Cancer: The Script You Need to Take Control of Your Health

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The 10 Best Questions for Surviving Breast Cancer: The Script You Need to Take Control of Your Health

A good mind knows the right answers...but a great mind knows the right questions. And never are the Best Questions more important than after a diagnosis of breast cancer. Drawing on cutting-edge...

Staging of cancer usually refers to how advanced a cancer is or how far it has spread into other parts of the body. The TNM staging system is the one used in medical terminology. The letters in the name refer to: the size and extent of the main tumor (T); the number (N) of lymph nodes to which the cancer has spread; and whether the cancer has metastasized (M) to other parts of the body. For general use, there is a more familiar and less detailed staging system going from 0 to 4, as follows:

  • Stage 0—abnormal cells found but not yet considered cancer
  • Stage 1—a small tumor that has not spread
  • Stage 2 and stage 3—a larger tumor and/or one that has spread to lymph nodes nearby
  • Stage 4—cancer has spread to distant places in the body

Some cancers are not staged this way; cancers that begin in the brain or spinal cord, for example, are not expected to spread to other parts of the body and cancers of the blood (like leukemia) do not form solid tumors. Staging is often used to determine treatment in cancer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.