What does your cancer stage mean?

When you're told that you have cancer, one of the first terms your doctor and health care team might talk about is your cancer stage.

The stage of your cancer generally describes whether the cancer has spread from the part of your body where it originally started growing and how far it may have spread.

This can be a helpful way to talk about your diagnosis, because it helps your doctor to express how far your cancer has spread as well as determine which cancer treatments are most likely to be effective.

Different cancers have different staging systems, so the stage of your cancer is specific for the type of cancer you’ve been diagnosed with. It’s also important to remember that the stage of your cancer only describes the extent of your cancer at a particular point in time. It doesn’t predict if your cancer might grow or spread in the future, or how you’ll be affected by your cancer.

That’s why understanding what the stages mean can give you a rough idea of how serious your cancer may be, but there are many more factors that could influence how your body handles the disease.

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What are the different stages of cancer?What are the different stages of cancer?

For solid types of cancers, for example breast cancer, prostate cancer and bowel cancers, the stages of cancer are usually described using Roman numerals. The different stages range from 0 to IV, with IV being the most advanced stage and 0 being the earliest stage.

The higher number the stage of your cancer is, the more the cancer has spread or affected other parts of your body.

For blood cancers, for example leukaemia, the stages are described in a different way.

The process of determining the stage of your cancer is known as cancer staging, and usually involves one or more medical tests such as scans, blood tests or a biopsy.

Stage 0 means the cancer is just beginning.

Cancer that has not spread beyond the location where it started growing is called stage 0. This means it’s still in its very earliest stages, and it is more likely to be easily removed before it spreads. Stage 0 cancer is also called carcinoma in situ (CIS).

Stage I means it has not spread very far.

Stage I cancer means the cancer is still in its early stages and there are no signs of it in nearby surrounding tissues or lymph nodes.  The chance of successfully treating stage I cancer is usually high if you receive treatment right away and do not delay seeking treatment.

Stage II and Stage III cancer means it has spread further.

Stage II and Stage III means that cancer may have spread locally to nearby tissue and/or lymph nodes, but it hasn’t spread as far as other distant organs. Stage II and III cancers are also called locally advanced cancers.

Stage IV cancer is the most advanced stage of cancer

Stage IV cancer means the cancer has spread (or metastasised) to distant organs such as the lungs, brain or liver. It’s also the most complex to treat, because more than one part of the body has been affected.

The stage of your cancer is just one of the terms your doctor might use to describe your cancer. You can find a list of other common cancer related terms here.

To know more about the stages for specific types of cancer, click here.


For a full list of references, click here.

Stages of cancer. Cancer Institute NSW. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2023, from https://www.cancer.nsw.gov.au/about-cancer/cancer-basics/stages-of-cancer

Stages of cancer. Cancer.Net. (2021, September 10). Retrieved January 31, 2023, from https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/diagnosing-cancer/stages-cancer

Cancer staging. American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2023, from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/understanding-your-diagnosis/staging.html

The content found on the Icon Cancer Centre website is intended solely for informational purposes and should not be considered as medical advice. It is not a substitute for consulting with a qualified medical professional. Our website is designed to provide information and support to the general public. Please be mindful that we do not dispense medical advice, and for personalised medical guidance, we strongly advise you to consult with a qualified medical professional or doctor.

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