Overview: Stages Of Cancer

Following a positive identification of cancer, doctors will try to establish the stage of the cancer. Cancers are ranked into stages depending on the specific characteristics that they possess; stages correspond with severity. Determining the stage of a given cancer helps doctors to make treatment recommendations, to form a likely outcome scenario for what will happen to the patient (prognosis), and to communicate effectively with other doctors.

There are multiple staging scales in use. One of the most common ranks cancers into five progressively more severe stages: 0, I, II, III, and IV. Stage 0 cancer is cancer that is just beginning, involving just a few cells. Stages I, II, III, and IV represent progressively more advanced cancers, characterized by larger tumor sizes, more tumors, the aggressiveness with which the cancer grows and spreads, and the extent to which the cancer has spread to infect adjacent tissues and body organs. Another popular staging system is known as the TNM system, a three dimensional rating of cancer extensiveness. Using the TNM system, doctors rate the cancers they find on each of three scales, where T stands for tumor size, N stands for lymph node involvement, and M stands for metastasis (the degree to which cancer has spread beyond its original locations). Larger scores on each of the three scales indicate more advanced cancer. For example, a large tumor that has not spread to other body parts might be rated T3, N0, M0, while a smaller but more aggressive cancer might be rated T2, N2, M1 suggesting a medium sized tumor that has spread to local lymph nodes and has just gotten started in a new organ location.

Still another staging system, called summary staging, is in use by the National Cancer Institute for its SEER program. Summary stages include: "In situ" or early cancer (stage 0 cancer), "localized" cancer which has not yet begun to spread, "regional" cancer which has spread to local lymph nodes but not yet to distant organs, "distant" cancer which has spread to distant organs, and finally, "unknown" cancer to describe anything not fitting elsewhere.

  • Pam Rushlow

    my brother passed away after 8 weeks of treatment why was he bleeding?

    there was no autopsy. they told us it was localized/ he was recieving chemo and radiation. what went wrong?

  • Sarah

    Im very sorry for your loss.

    Your brother was probably bleeding because of the effects of the chemo on the bone marrow.

  • Tae

    Hello Pam,

    I am so sorry for your loss. I just found out, yesterday, that my maternal grandmother has lung cancer. She just found out last week and has to get more tests done in the wks to come to see what stage it's in but she is adamant about not having surgery or taking chemo or radiation treatment. My grandfather(her husband) also has lung cancer and he hasnt had any treatment and its been 5yrs for him now but I still don't want to lose either of them.

    Again Pam. my condelenses.


  • Paul

    Does anyone know what stage T3N 1 means in Rectal Cancer?

  • Jack

    Hello Paul

    T3 means the cancer has grown through the muscularis propria and into the subserosa but not to any neighboring organs or tissues.

    N1 means cancer cells found in 1 to 3 nearby lymph nodes

    Hope that this has helped, please feel free for you, or anyone else to ask me any questions, as I will get back to you as quick as I can

    Get back to be Paul


  • Joyce

    I took my daughter to the doctor today. She has been diagnosed with Stage IV lymph node cancer, which she has in two places. the stomach and in her neck. What options should she take for treatment? She was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in November of 2007,she took the chemo and just finished with 36 weeks of radiation last October. Now it has spreaded.

  • Jeannette

    I was diagnose at the same stage of cancer last year.

    And Today i stand here cancer free.

    Just don't give up hope, go through the treatment they say best, no matter how hard, and pray.

    Chemo and radiation is what I did.

    And surgery.

  • Anonymous-1

    My grandmother was just diagnosed with stage III C ovarion cancer and I would like to know what the C stands for?

  • charlene

    I have seven kids, 4 of them grown, 3 more to raise, there ages are 17,10,7, Also have a wonder husband, They say i have ovarin cancer, i'm in my 3rd stage. I never been so scared, IAM BLEEDING alot, while i'm writing this i am crying, just needed someone to write to.

  • Margaret


    You are not alone! Try to stay positive even though I know it is hard. You have seven amazing reasons to fight like heck. Use their love and your love for them as your strength to get through this. You CAN do it!!!!!

    Best wishes,


  • Janice

    My dearest friend has caner of the brain. She had surgery. I do not understand the process and don't know where to go for answers. Right now she is not walking due to swelling, and recently having problems with going to the bathroom. She sleeps a lot. Any guidance please.

  • Anonymous-2

    After reading all of the responses below-I fee the pain you are going through right now.....my family has a long history of cancer.....it has been so terrible....that doctors have considered doing research on our extremely high rate of cancer in our family.....its from a long generation. All I can say is pray for your loved ones and believe that God will cure you....my mother and aunt both had stage III cancer (mother 9 years ago) (aunt 6 years).....both survived and are living proof that God shows mercy. I prayed and fasted for my mother when I heard about this. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.

  • Patty

    In 2006 I was diagnoised with stage 2 breast cancer. What is the prognosis, as far as survivalship for this type of cancer?

    Editor's Note: What information we have about breast cancer may be found in our Breast Cancer chapter

  • Anonymous-3

    what do stage three in bone cancer mean?

  • Mary

    I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in May 2008 since then I have been thru an extensive surgery debulking most of the cancer with my first round of Chemo 2 months after. After 2 more rounds of Chemo with different meds I have not gone into remission. I have lost my hair, my lashes, my eyebrows..but my faith has only grown more and more.

    In April my hair started to grown back (even the gray) I've ditched wearing a wig, working everyday except on Chemo days.

    I cherish every day GOD gives me,,, I laugh more, I hug longer I enjoy my family, friends Next week we celebrate a family wedding and I can't wait to get on that dance floor and be a part of this great celebration.

    It's not over 'till it's over!!! Keep the faith & GOD Bless You always.

  • Debendra Kumar Samal

    Dear Sir/Madam, My mother recently under gone surgery by a cancer specialist of Tumours in B/L ovarian and the BIOPSY Report says it type- papillary Serous carcinoma of ovary of histologic grading-2(moderately differntiated),Surface-Tumour involves ovarian surface on both side,At uterine wall -uterine serosa: involved by ovarian carcinoma,At omentum-metastatic carcinoma seen,At lymph nodes -Rt Para aortic-metastatic carcinoma seen and at staging- Primary tumour(T) pTNM-T3B FIGO-iiiB,Regional Nodes(N) pTNM-N1 FIGO-iiiC,Distance metstasis(M) pTNM-Max.The Tumour represents stage IIIC.please suggest me the further course of treatment.I'm totally confused what to do.what is the percentage of chances of survival of patient at stage IIIC.please sir suggest me.

  • Mo

    My best friends mother has been diagnosed with stage 4 bone cancer, can anyone tell me what that means. My mother died of cancer and I saw how suffered and I believe my friend does npt realize the severity of her mothers condition. I need some answers.

  • Marisol

    my grandma just found out she has cancer for the second time but she has faith and I know God will deliver her

  • Alonda

    I was very young when I start having abdominal pain. It was so bad that I could not walk, I was only 9 years of age. Every month the pain seem to be getting worse. Doctors could not determine what was the cause. Every year as I start to get older the pain just got worse. I became pregnant, but I still was have menstruation. The doctor finally decided to check me for cancer, and when the results came back I had right ovarian cancer. I had to suffer all them years with the pain when I kept telling them that their was something serious wrong with me. And that cause both of my children life. Now since Im 37 now, I tell the doctor to check me for something, believe me they better do it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Anonymous-4

    My mother 82 was diagnosed in March with stage IV lung cancer. It had gone into her bones and also into her brain. My mother had been a smoker, but quit about 15 years ago. For 82 my mother was in great shape. She even planted a garden and mowed her own yard until this summer. She decided to go the Tarceva route for treatment. Lots of dehydration. She also underwent 15 rounds of whole brain radiation. Once she started her treatments nothing was ever normal from that point on.

    I buried her two months ago today. She walked out of radiation treatment the Tuesday before Memorial Day and died two weeks later. Unfortunately, from Memorial Day on until her death she did not know us. She also did not eat or drink. She wanted nothing.

    I really question why doctors treat stage IV lung cancer. After all it is not cureable only treatable. To watch the last nine days of her death was the hardest thing I have ever gone through.

    Thanks for listening.

  • Candy

    My mother died of stage IV lung cancer 8 years ago and I can still remember it like it was yesterday. She had little discomfort because of the morphine except for difficulty breathing.

    I will never forget watching her take her final breaths.

    I can't understand how we can put men on the moon, prolong the lives of those with AIDS but can't cure cancer.

  • lauren

    i'm working on a 10 page essay and chose cancer as my topic. my math teacher had breast cancer, and i remeber she had about 2 feet long of hair. Everyday she would come to school wearing the most cutest clothes, best hair syle ever, and the biggest smile on her face like nothing could get in her way. Every afternoon if i would visit her she would be doing her hair, or twirling it in appreciative manner, but then one day she came to school and all of her hair was chopped off, and everyone was just silent that day. She wasn't the same. She didnt dress as she had always did, or have her hair at all, or a smile onn her face. All that was in its place was a dreadful frown upon her bashful cheeks. on the outside she was smiling getting ready for the days accomplishments but in reality she was diagnosed with breast cancer. she had breast cancer for about 3 years or so and i cried everyday ...

    but i will always remeber her services the day she dies.

    she died on the day i was at girl scout camp and she was the first person to always buy cookies from mee

    ~ love lauren thanks for listening to my story and if you have any suggestions about my project i would gladly accept them all thank you

    i'm 13 years old in pennsylvania in 8th grade.




  • Kimberly Perez

    I was just informed that I have to do a biopsy on my cervix and the last couple f days I can't seem to even think streight. The fear of just the suspision of having cancer of any kind is the worst for me. I use to say be prepared for the worst but pray for the best and stay positive but I can't even do that anymore. I don't like being scared!


    01 JAN 15 is the blackest day of my life. My school friend died of hyroid cancer. He was diagnosed from stage 2 and when the final stage 4 came he was just too weak. His cancer had spread to his bones and his chances of survival was zero. I visited him during the last days and he was a pale shadow of what he used to be but his determination and love of his kids keep him moving.A fantastic person who was by nature a non smoker and a non alcoholic drinker had this unknown disease which was uncurable