Everything you need to know about cancer staging

On an average, 1.8 million individuals get diagnosed with cancer every year. It occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control and crowd around regular cells of the body. Cancer is not just one disease that targets one part of the body, it can happen to any part of the body at any stage of your life. Although there are some similarities between the different forms of cancer, the way each type grows and spreads is different.

Many times, you hear the word tumor associated with the word cancer. A tumor is a lump or form of growth formed by cancer. One must remember that not all lumps are cancerous. If you have a lump, the doctor is most likely to take a part of the lump out and test it to see if it’s cancerous.

Lumps that are not cancerous are called benign whereas those that are cancerous are called malignant. You must note that there are forms of cancer that do not form lumps or tumors. Leukemia or blood cancer does not form tumors.

Similarities between all the cancers:

A normal cell in our bodies divides in an orderly manner, when these cells wear out or get damaged, they die and are disposed of by the body. But when it comes to cancer, the cells tend to grow erratically. They multiple at an alarming rate. They end up crowding around the normal cells of the body. This then prevents the normal cells from functioning and causes problems in the part of the body where the cancer generated.

There are instances where cancer cells metastasize. Metastasis means that the cancer cells have spread to a different part of the body and started to grow there.

Differences between all the cancers:

The rate at which cancers grow and spread varies depending upon the type of cancers. For instance, severe forms of cancer have the tendency to grow and spread at a fast rate, whereas, other forms grow more slowly over time. The methods of treatment also differ. For some forms of cancer, doctors recommend surgery as the mode of treatment. There are also forms of cancers that respond better to medicines and drugs. The drug-based treatment is chemotherapy. The types of treatment plans are designed as per what the individual requires. 

The word ‘stages’ is also a commonly used term when someone is speaking about cancer. The stage is the term used to describe how far and how much the cancer has spread. The stage of cancer is determined by the doctor. Once the stage is determined the doctor can decide the type of treatment plan that can effectively tackle the illness. There are five stages of cancer divided into the lower stages and the higher stages.

Lower stages:

  • Stage 0- This means that there are no cancer cells in your body. There are abnormal cells in your body that have the potential of turning into cancer. It can be called carcinoma in situ
  • Stage 1- This is also known as the early stage of cancer. It means that the cancer is small and present only in one area.
  • Stage 2-This stage means that the cancer has grown but not spread.
  • Stage 3- This means that the cancer is large and may continue to grow. It also means that the cancer might have spread to the surrounding tissues or lymph nodes
  • Stage 4- This stage indicates that the cancer has spread to various parts of the body. It is also known as secondary or metastatic cancer

There are times when a doctor assigns grades to the cancer as well. A cancer grade describes the level of abnormality of a cancer cell in comparison with a healthy cell. The severity of the cancer is determined by how abnormal the cells look and the way the cells organize themselves. The more abnormal the cells look and organize themselves the higher the cancer grade it is. A high cancer grade means that the cancer has a chance of being more aggressive. They are called poorly differentiated and undifferentiated.

Most doctors use a 1-4 grading scale

  • Grade 1- This is considered as a low grade. The tumor cells look similar to healthy cells and tissues. These are called well-differentiated tumors.
  • Grade 2- The cells seem a bit abnormal when compared to healthy cells. They are called moderately differentiated. This is an intermediate grade.
  • Grade 3- This is a considerably high grade. This means that the cells are extremely abnormal and they no longer have an architectural structure or pattern. They are poorly differentiated.
  • Grade 4- This is the highest grade which means that the cancer is growing and spreading faster than the lower grade ones. The cells are the most abnormal looking and are undifferentiated cells.

Another form of staging is known as the TNM staging. The TNM system stands for Tumor, Node, and Metastasis. Normally they measure each of these and give a number or an X if the measurement cannot be determined. The symbols may differ but generally, they mean the following:

  • Tumor (T): The letter T followed by a number between 0-4 usually signifies how large the tumor is and possibly where its located. T0 means there is no measurable tumor. The higher the number the larger the tumor.
  • Node (N): The letter N followed by the numbers 0-3 usually tells you how much the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes. Sometimes there are glands infected with fluids that can cause the cancer to spread. N0 indicates that the lymph nodes are not involved. The higher the number the more the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes away from the original site of infection.
  • Metastasis (M): The letter M is usually followed by the numbers 0 or 1. M0 means that the cancer has not spread to other organs and tissues whereas M1 means that the cancer has spread to other organs and tissues.

Several tests and a physical exam will help determine the stage of your cancer or how far it has spread in your body. These tests may include blood and lab tests along with imaging scans.  

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