We’ve often heard cancer described in stages as it progresses, but few outside the medical profession have a strong understanding of what each stage means. Knowing the stage of the cancer can help manage expectations regarding treatment, including surgery or chemotherapy; chances of remission and recurrence; diagnosis; and success of the treatment for particular types of cancer. The following information can help familiarize you with the stages and language surrounding each stage if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer.
Helpful Key Words
Doctors typically use the TNM staging system from the American Joint Committee on Cancer to identify the stage of a cancer, though several other systems exist for various types of cancer. The TNM stage can be clinical, meaning that it is based on the result of tests done before surgery and denoted with a “c” before the stage number, or pathological, meaning that it is based on the results of surgery and marked with “p”. Post-therapy staging, which occurs after non-surgical treatment, is denoted with a “y” and can also be used.
To determine the stage of the cancer under this system, they evaluate the size and location of the tumor, whether it has spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body, how much it has spread, and whether there are any markers related to the tumor that can make it more or less likely to spread. The appearance of cancer cells, tumor genetics, and tumor markers can also contribute to a doctor’s determination of stage.
The letter T plus a number from 0 to 4 is used to describe the tumor location and size, which is measured in centimeters. Lymph nodes are identified with an N and the numbers 0 to 3, with higher numbers indicating that more nodes have been affected. Lymph nodes near where the cancer started are considered regional, while others are distant. Finally, the combination M1 indicates that the cancer has metastasized, or spread, while M0 shows that it has not.
Not all cancers have a stage zero, but for those that do, this stage describes a cancer that is still located in one area and has not spread to other areas. It can typically be treated by removing the tumor with surgery and is highly curable.
Stage one cancer generally consists of a small tumor that has not grown deeply into nearby tissues or spread to other areas of the body. It is often called early stage cancer and can be treated with surgery or chemotherapy. In many cancers, this is the first stage, rather than zero.
Stages Two and Three
As stages increase in number, the cancer indicated is larger and has grown into nearby tissue. It may have also spread to lymph nodes, but not to other parts of the body. The speed at which a cancer grows depends on the type of cancer, initial location, and genetics of the patient.
Stage four cancer has metastasized, or spread to other organs or parts of the body. It is therefore considered advanced and may or may not be treatable at this point, depending on the type of cancer present. If your loved one’s cancer is not treatable and their doctor estimates that they have six months or fewer to live, consider enrolling them in hospice care, which provides in-home support for your family and loved one to make them comfortable and help everyone cope with their diagnosis and treatment needs.
Over the course of treatment, a doctor may restage the cancer based on testing and the efficacy of curative measures. However, this is uncommon, and most patients will be assigned a stage based on the initial diagnosis for the duration of treatment.
Symptoms of Cancer
The symptoms of cancer vary depending on the location of the cancer, the stage, and whether it has metastasized or not. Treatments like chemotherapy can also have unpleasant side effects. Generally, cancer may cause lumps under the skin, bleeding or discharge, unusual bowel or bladder habits, a lingering cough or hoarseness, and new moles and other changes in the skin. If you or a loved one begin experiencing any of these symptoms, consult a doctor for more information.
Hospice Care for Late Stage Cancer
Speak to Harbor Light Hospice for more information about hospice care for late stage cancers. Harbor Light’s teams of doctors, nurses, counselors, and therapists provide in-home services that help cancer patients feel comfortable and grapple with the emotional changes that a cancer diagnosis can bring on. Family members and caregivers are also supported with mental health counseling for themselves and the opportunity to rest and recover while their loved one is being treated by a professional hospice care team. Through hospice care, your loved one can receive much-needed relief in the comfort of their own home as they transition through this final stage of their life.