Being Well

What the Stages of Cancer Actually Mean

Knowing the correct stage of cancer is the first step in helping your doctor recommend the best possible treatment plan.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, one of the first things you want to understand is what stage the cancer is. The stage can help you know if the cancer has spread beyond its original location and, if so, how far.

These details help your doctor determine the best treatment plan for you. This information will also help assess your prognosis, or outlook, reports the American Cancer Society.

By the Numbers

You may already be familiar with using numbers to describe stages of cancer. Most cancers have four stages, says the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Some cancers also have a stage 0 (zero). Your doctor will probably describe your cancer based on this system:

  • Stage 0: These very early clusters of abnormal cells haven’t spread beyond their original site and may be completely cured by surgically removing the entire tumor. Stage 0 tumors are also described as in situ, which means “in place.”
  • Stage I: This stage refers to small tumors which haven’t spread into your nearby tissues. They also haven’t spread to the lymph nodes or other body parts. These early-stage cancers usually have a good prognosis.
  • Stage II and III: These larger tumors have spread into nearby tissue and are also known as becoming invasive. Both Stage II and Stage III cancers have spread to your lymph nodes. Stage III tumors may also have spread to nearby body parts.
  • Stage IV: These advanced-staged cancers have expanded beyond the lymph nodes to other organs or parts of your body. Stage IV cancers are also known as “metastatic” because they have metastasized, or spread.

Tumor, Node, and Metastasis: TNM

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the “TNM” system is the most popular cancer staging system. If you read the pathology report describing your cancer, you’ll most likely spot these descriptors.

The “T” stands for tumor and describes the size of the primary, or main, tumor. The “N” stands for nodes and refers to the number of nearby lymph nodes that contain cancer. The “M” stands for metastasis and indicates whether your cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

With the “TNM” system, the information gets even more specific because a descriptive number follows each letter. Here’s what the NCI has to say about what the numbers mean:


  • TX: Your main tumor can’t be measured.
  • T0: Your main tumor can’t be found.
  • T1, T2, T3, T4: These refer to the extent of your main tumor. The higher the number, the larger the tumor is or the more it has grown into nearby tissues.

Lymph Nodes:

  • NX: Cancer in nearby lymph nodes can’t be measured.
  • N0: Your nearby lymph nodes don’t have cancer.
  • N1, N2, N3: These refer to the amount and location of your lymph nodes that contain cancer. As you can assume, a higher number means you have more affected lymph nodes.


  • MX: Your metastasis can’t be measured.
  • M0: Cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of your body.
  • M1: Cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

Most types of cancer have their own specific staging definitions and some, like blood, brain and spinal cord cancers, may not even be staged at all. If this sounds like a lot to take in, it is. However, with a cancer diagnosis, your doctor will provide as much detail as needed for you to understand the specifics of your cancer so you can bring a team approach to beating cancer. Make sure you ask questions – your healthcare team is here to help explain everything.

The first step in knowing your cancer type and stage is to get an accurate diagnosis. The UVA Cancer Center has many state-of-the-art diagnostic testing options available.

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Darcy Lewis
Darcy Lewis