What are the different stages of cancer?
The stage of a cancer describes how far it has grown and spread at the time it is diagnosed.
Stages are used to describe the spread of solid tumours, like breast, bowel or lung cancers. Blood cancers behave differently and are staged in different ways.
Solid tumour stages
Unless a cancer is treated it will continue to grow and spread through the following stages:
- When a cancer first starts and forms a solid tumour, this is called a primary cancer.
- Local spread is when a primary cancer grows outwards into the tissues around it.
- Regional spread is when cells from the primary cancer spread into lymph nodes in the same area of the body.
- Metastatic (Stage 4 cancer) spread is when some cancer cells from the primary cancer get into the bloodstream or the lymphatic system and spread to other parts of the body. These cells can grow and form new cancers. These are called metastases or secondary cancers.
What is cancer staging?
Staging is the process of measuring how far a cancer has spread when it is first diagnosed. It often involves having scans and other tests.
Knowing the stage of a cancer is important as it helps doctors to work out the best treatment options.
It also means the person with cancer can fully understand their situation and discuss any concerns they have.
There are different staging systems for different cancers, but they generally use either the:
What is the numbered system?
The numbered system uses stage numbers to identify how far cancer has spread:
Stage 0 cancer
Often referred to as ‘in-situ’ cancer means the cancer cells are still in the place where they started and have not spread at all.
Stage 1 cancer
Is small and has only spread a little into nearby tissues. It has not spread to any lymph nodes or other body areas.
Stage 2 and 3 cancer
Means it is larger or has spread into nearby tissues or lymph nodes.
Stage 4 cancer
Has spread to other areas of the body. Stage 4 cancer is also called metastatic cancer or advanced cancer. See definition of metastasis.
What is the TNM system?
In the TNM system, there are three categories:
- T = tumour
- N = lymph nodes
- M = metastases
Each of these categories is given a score, and together these scores show how far the cancer has spread.
You can find a list of organisations that provide cancer information and support in NSW on our CanRefer website.
The Cancer Council Australia provides more information for people recently diagnosed - you can also call their support line 13 11 20.