How is melanoma staged?

The stage of a melanoma is a description of how widespread it is. Various tests are used to help decide the stage of the melanoma. The stage is very important because it affects the treatment and the outlook (prognosis) for recovery.

Stages are labeled using 0 and the Roman numerals I through IV (1-4), often followed by letters. As a rule, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV (4), means a more advanced cancer.

The stage is based mainly on three key pieces of information:
  • How far the main tumor has grown within the skin
  • Whether the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes
  • Whether the cancer has metastasized (spread) to distant organs
There are really two types of staging for melanoma. The clinical stage is based on what is found in the physical exam, skin biopsy, x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans and so on. The pathological stage uses all this information plus what is found during any biopsies of lymph nodes or other organs. So the clinical stage (which is done first) may be lower than the pathologic stage, which is found after the biopsy.

After looking at your test results, the doctor will tell you the stage of your cancer. Be sure to ask him or her to explain your stage in a way you understand. This will help you decide on the best treatment for you.

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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.