Understanding Cancer Stages

When a doctor tells a patient they have cancer after a series of tests, one of the first things they often mention is the stage of the cancer. The stage a cancer is at is important, because it tells us and other healthcare professionals how serious the condition is.

Staging a Cancer

When a healthcare professional suspects you have cancer, you are usually referred to a cancer specialist, also known as an oncologist. You may also have to undergo several tests, such as MRI, X-rays and blood tests. These tests will provide a lot of information, such as the size of the tumour, if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body. An oncologist will analyse this data and determine the stage the cancer is at based on a number of factors.

Each type of cancer has its own staging information. For solid cancers such as that of the breast, colon or lung, stages are usually decided based on the size of the tumour, the number of lymph nodes affected by the cancer, the spread of the cancer, the presence of cancer markers and how much the cancer cells look like healthy cells.

Stage 0

The tumour is very small, located where they started and have not spread to other tissues. At this stage, the cancer is often easily cured by removing the entire tumour through surgery.

Stage 1

Also known as early stage cancer, a tumour at this stage is small and has not grown deeply into nearby tissues, nor spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage 2 and 3

These stages indicate larger tumours that have grown more deeply into nearby tissue. They may also have spread to the lymph nodes, but not to other parts of the body.

Stage 4

Also known as advanced or metastatic cancer, this stage means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. It is the most difficult to treat and manage.

Other cancers, such as brain cancer, childhood cancer and cancer of the blood such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma are staged specific to the cancer type, with their own staging system.

Why Staging is Important

The stage of the cancer also helps a doctor predict many things, such as the chance that the cancer will come back, and the chances of a full recovery.

Cancer is a condition which is often managed by a full team. Depending on the type of cancer, your oncologist may require the help of an oncology nurse, palliative care doctor, pathologist, dietitian, rehabilitation therapist and radiologist. Location specific cancers may also require specialists such as neurologists, gastroenterologists or orthopaedic doctors to provide their expert input on the suitability of the treatment. If an individual recovers from cancer, it is often through team effort.

In Centres of Excellence for cancer care such as at the Subang Jaya Medical Centre, the stage of the cancer explains to the entire health team how bad a case of cancer is, where it is, or if it has spread and affects other parts of the body. This allows the oncologist and the cancer care team to plan the best treatment for the patient, and determine which combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy is optimal for the condition.