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Understanding the Stages of Cancer

Determining the stage of cancer is a very important step after someone is diagnosed with cancer. Staging is used to describe the extent or severity of a person’s cancer, which helps doctors determine a prognosis and the best course of treatment.

Common Staging Procedures and Types:

The most common staging is TNM, which designates three aspects of cancer. “T” refers to the size or extent of the tumor; “N” refers to whether cancer cells have spread to nearby lymph nodes and “M” refers to whether the cancer has metastasized.

In addition, numbers are often used to indicate the degree of each aspect, depending on specific cancer types. Most tumors can be described as stage 0, stage I, stage II, stage III or stage IV. Physical exams, imaging procedures, laboratory tests, pathology reports and surgery can all provide information to help determine the stage.

While other testing may be needed, clinical staging determines how much cancer may exist based on a physical exam, imaging and tumor biopsies. The clinical stage is key when deciding the best treatment for an individual diagnosis. It’s also a baseline for comparison when looking at the typical response to treatment for a given type of cancer.

Pathological or surgical staging relies on what is learned during surgery, either to remove the cancer and nearby lymph nodes or to determine how much cancer is in the body and take tissue samples. The pathological stage gives the health care team more precise information, which is used to predict treatment response and outcomes.

If you are looking for additional information about cancer staging, please speak with your doctor, or visit the cancer staging information page provided by the American Cancer Society.

This is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your health care team. It is intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor.