One of the many new terms that patients hear when receiving a cancer diagnosis is “stage”. Along with a long list of other medical terminology used by caregivers to describe cancer, the stage of cancer is used to describe the level at which the cancer has progressed. The stage of cancer will determine where the disease is located, if or where it has spread, what other parts of the body it may have affected, and the patient’s estimated survivable rate. The stage is the most credible indication of the cancer’s progression at a given period of time and is determined by patient procedures and tests such as physical examinations, imaging scans, biopsies, blood tests, surgery or other genetic testing. Even though this is extremely important information, nearly half of the patients diagnosed with cancer in the past two years are unaware of their disease’s stage.
The American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) recently released the latest edition of its cancer staging manual with new and updated staging for many types of cancer. Most cancer treatment centers started using the updated manual on January 1, 2018.
The specific stage of cancer can be determined by tests conducted prior to diagnosis or after a surgery has been performed. It can provide answers to questions concerning the size of the primary tumor, whether it has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body and if the cancer is more or less likely to spread. The cancer’s stage will help determine the specific course of treatments, establish the likelihood of recovery, the estimated time to recovery and permit the patient to develop a roadmap for the challenges that lie ahead.
Most types of cancer have four stages:
- Stage 0 is the stage that best describes cancer that is still located in the place it started and has not spread to nearby tissues. This stage of cancer is often highly curable, usually by removing the entire tumor with surgery.
- Stage I cancer is usually a small cancer or tumor that has not grown deeply into nearby tissues. It also has not spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body and is often referred to as early-stage cancer.
- Stage II and Stage III refers to larger tumors that have grown more deeply into nearby tissue and those that may have spread to the lymph nodes but not to other parts of the body.
- Stage IV indicates that a cancer has spread to other organs or parts of the body and is sometimes called advanced or metastatic cancer.
Understanding your cancer stage will provide critical insight on your future treatment options, the time and direction of recovery and ultimately your likelihood for survival. It is important to be informed about all aspects of your disease so that you can be an active and well-informed participant in your own care.