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What are the stages of lung cancer?

Dr. Jay M. Lee, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

The stages of lung cancer are I through IV. The stage is determined by the tumor size, location and whether it is in the lung only or has spread to other places in the body such as lymph nodes or other organs.

Staging is the process of finding out if and how far lung cancer has spread. A staging system is a standard way for doctors to describe how large a cancer is and how far it has spread.

The TNM staging system for lung carcinoid tumors and non-small cell lung is used to describe the:

  • Tumor
  • Nodes (lymph nodes)
  • Metastasis (if the cancer has spread)

Small cell lung cancer can be divided into two stages:

  • Limited stage: means the cancer is on only one side of the chest (lung and/or lymph nodes), so it could be reasonably treated with a radiation field.
  • Extended stage: means the cancer is on both sides of the chest (spread to both lungs and/or lymph nodes on both sides of the body) or spread outside the chest to other areas of the body, so it could not be reasonably treated with a radiation field.
Dr. Daniel A. Nader, DO
Pulmonary Disease Specialist

Lung cancer is staged by looking at the size of the tumor in the lung, the location of metastatic lymph nodes in the chest, and whether there is evidence of cancer outside the chest. This is referred to as the TNM staging system. This was recently revised in 2011 by the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. It is universally utilized to assist doctors in communicating about patients and utilized to direct specific treatments.

Dr. Brian D. Mott, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Lung cancer is staged into 4 stages based on characteristics attributed to the tumor itself, any lymph node involvement, and whether there has been metastatic spread. Advanced stage usually means larger, invasive tumors with positive lymph node involvement with cancer cells. The earlier the stage the better the overall results in terms of survival and the better chance for a cure. Most lung cancers are usually discovered in more advanced stages. Surgery is best accomplished successfully in early stages. Overall lung cancer is an aggressive form of cancer that could be prevented in most patients if they never smoked in their lives.

Staging is used to describe a cancer in regards to how far it has spread. Non-small cell lung cancer stages include stage I, II, IIIA, IIIB, IV. In stage I, the cancer has made its way into the tissues of the lung, but it has not entered lymph nodes in the area. Stage II lung cancer refers to lung cancer that has spread to lymph nodes or other tissues in the immediate area of the original tumor. In stages IIIA and IIIB the cancer has spread farther from the original site and now includes lymph nodes further into the chest, or other major chest structures such as the heart or large blood vessels. Lung cancer that has spread to areas far from its original location is said to be a stage IV lung cancer. Staging of cancers is usually taken into consideration when developing a treatment strategy for people with lung 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.