Understanding the Stages of Cancer

Updated: Jun 24

Cancer. It’s a small word that can mean a lot of different things. No matter what kind a person has, understanding the stages of cancer and available treatment options is important for optimal treatment.

A stage of a cancer mainly describes the size of the tumor and if it has spread to other areas of the body at the time of diagnosis. It is important for doctors to diagnose the stage of cancer so they can understand how serious the cancer is, as well as develop a prognosis.

Why staging is important

Identifying the stage of cancer acts as a guidepost for the surgical team and helps identify treatment plans or clinical trial options. If a cancer is localized to one area of the body, then surgery or radiotherapy could be enough to remove it completely. If a cancer has spread, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or biological therapies that circulate throughout the bloodstream are required.

How stages are determined

  1. X-rays

  2. Lab tests

  3. CT, MRI, PET or nuclear scans

  4. Ultrasounds

  5. Biopsy

There are different types of staging systems for different cancers, but the most common is the numbered cancer stage system, which identifies 5 possible stages:

  1. Stage 0 – Cancer cells that are still in the location where they started and have not spread.

  2. Stage 1 – Localized cancer that has spread into nearby tissues. It has not yet spread to lymph nodes or other areas.

  3. Stage 2 – Cancer has spread to a regional area or into nearby tissues or lymph nodes.

  4. Stage 3 – More advanced regional spread than Stage 2.

  5. Stage 4 – Cancer has spread to distant parts of the body. This stage is often referred to as metastatic cancer, or a cancer that has spread to other areas of the body.

This system gives doctors a common language to describe the size and spread of cancers. It is also helpful when comparing research studies and determining standardized treatment guidelines for hospitals and clinics.

If you’ve been recently diagnosed with cancer or would like to learn more about treatment options, call the START Center today at (210) 745-6841 or request an appointment.

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