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What Do the Different Stages of Cancer Mean?

(JANUARY 2014) When describing the severity of someone’s cancer diagnosis, you will often hear people refer to the “stage” of cancer the patient is in. Doctors categorize cancer severity this way as a means to help patients and their families understand the prognosis and make informed decisions about the best treatment options.

The most commonly used staging system is known as TMN, which stands for Tumor, Nodes, Metastasis.

To determine the T component of the staging score, doctors evaluate the size and or extent of the primary tumor. The N portion is judged based on whether cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes. The M component relates to the spread of cancer to other parts of the body.

The doctor then translates the results of the TMN evaluation into a numbered stage, from 0-4 (but Roman numerals are used). In general, the higher the stage number, the worse the cancer’s effects on the patient.

Stage 0 – in situ

In situ is a Latin phrase that translates to “in position.” In stage 0, the cancer is not spreading. This is the best case scenario for a cancer diagnosis. At this stage, the cancer poses little to no threat.

Stage I – localized cancer

In stage I, a tumor is less than two centimeters in size and is not spreading. The cancer is still a single lump here, but it is starting to infringe on surrounding tissues. It is now a potential threat to life.

Stages II and III – regional spread

In stage II, the tumor is two to five centimeters and may or may not have involved the lymph nodes. In stage III, the tumor is more than five centimeters, and is attached to the chest wall, muscle or skin or spread to above-the-collarbone lymph nodes. The term regional spread is used to indicate the cancer has spread from its original location, but not to other parts of the body.

Stage IV – distant spread

In stage IV, the tumor may be any size. It has definitely spread to other parts of the body and may or may not affect the lymph nodes. If cancer cells make it into the bloodstream, they then have access to travel and cause damage to just about any part of the body.

Cancer, particularly in later stages, can interfere with the effective functioning of multiple body systems. This could lead to unforeseen medical emergencies, so it’s always wise to wear a medical ID bracelet to inform medical personnel know about ongoing health conditions.

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