What are the different stages of cancer and what do they mean?
The term 'stage of cancer' means the stage the cancer was at when it was first diagnosed. Being sure about the stage is very important because it is a critical factor in deciding the best way to treat the cancer.
"Doctors use a range of ways of describing these stages.
Usually, stage 0 is in situ cancer; stage 1 is localised
cancer, although further local spread may take it to stage 2; stage
2 also usually includes spread to the nearest lymph nodes; stage 3
usually indicates more extensive lymph node involvement and stage 4
always indicates distant spread.
"The term 'stage of cancer' means the stage the cancer was at
when it was first diagnosed. Being sure about the stage is very
important because it is a critical factor in deciding the best way
to treat the cancer.
"Stage is also very important to prognosis - prediction of the
cancer's effect on the person who has it. On average, the higher
the stage, the worse the cancer's effect on the person who has it.
The hope of cancer treatment is that it will improve the prognosis,
both in prediction and in reality.
Stage 0 'in situ'
"A cell that becomes a cancer cell usually does so in the
company of other similar cells. Often, but not always, it can
produce a tumour right there in that tissue, in a way that poses
little or no threat to life. This is called in situ
cancer; that is, cancer in the position where it started. It is
probable that some cancers never go beyond this early stage."
Stage 1: localised cancer
"At the next stage, the cancer cells gain the ability to pass
through the 'basement membrane', that is the thin, fibrous boundary
to the tissue in which the cancer began, and to invade neighbouring
tissue. This invasion is a serious step, because it indicates that
the growing cancer cells may threaten life.
"While the cancer remains a single lump, partly in the tissue
where it began and partly in a neighbouring tissue, it is said to
be in the localised stage."
Stages 2 and 3: regional spread
"Once a cancer cell has invaded, a common next step is for one
of its daughter cells to invade through a lymph vessel (a vessel
like a blood vessel that carries the clear fluid called lymph,
which is all the time exuding into tissue from our blood
capillaries (the smallest blood vessels), back to the blood
"On the way to the blood stream, the cancer cell can get caught
in a lymph node, one of the powerhouses of the body's immune
system. There it might provoke an immune response against it, which
can go on to destroy it and the other cancer cells. Wonderful!
"Sometimes, though, it divides and forms a lump in the lymph
node. This stage is often referred to as regional spread. That is,
the cancer has spread within the general region in which it first
began but not to other parts of the body."
Stage 4: distant spread
"The next step can be quite varied. Cells from the lump in the
lymph node may spread further through lymph vessels to more distant
lymph nodes or on into the blood stream. Or cells from the original
lump may invade a capillary and enter the blood stream that
"Either way, once in the blood stream, the cancer cells can go
just about anywhere in the body, form new colonies and spread
further. This is the stage of distant spread."
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