When diagnosed with cancer, there are many key factors that play an important role in deciding what treatment is best for you. First, you must know how severe is cancer. The cancer stages range from 1-to 4 and depend on the size, location, and metastasis of the tumor. Then you must also know if cancer has spread to other parts of your body (metastasis).
For general information on stages of cancer, you can look to the TNM system. This system is used by doctors to determine the extent of tumors and whether it has spread to other parts of your body.
T: The letter "T" plus a number (0 to 4) is used to describe the size and location of the tumor, including how far the tumor has grown into nearby tissues. A larger tumor or a tumor that has grown more deeply into the surrounding tissue is given a higher number. For some types of cancer, lowercase letters, such as “a”, “b”, or "m" (multiple), are added to the “T” stage category to provide more detail.
N: The letter "N" plus a number (0 to 3) describes whether cancer has been found in the lymph nodes, and, in some types of cancer, how many of these lymph nodes contain cancer. Lymph nodes are tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection. Lymph nodes located closest to where cancer began are called regional lymph nodes. Lymph nodes in other parts of the body are called distant lymph nodes. Most often, the more lymph nodes with cancer, the larger the number assigned. However, for some types of tumors, the location of the lymph nodes with cancer may determine the “N” stage category.
M: The letter "M" indicates whether cancer has metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body. If cancer has not spread to other parts of the body, it is said to be M0; if cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it is considered M1.
T: Tumor Size and Extension - N: Lymph Nodes - M: Metastasis
It is a good idea for you to know what stage you are in because it helps the doctor figure out the best treatment plan. If your cancer is more advanced than they thought, you will get treatment earlier rather than later so that it does not progress even further.
Your doctor may also determine your cancer stages by using a biopsy. A biopsy is done by inserting a thin needle into the tumor and removing some of the cells for examination under a microscope. A pathologist then looks at these cells to find out if they are cancerous, how many abnormal cells are present, and if they have grown into the surrounding tissues.
The stages of cancer will be different depending on the type or types of cells that have been found in the biopsy. So a pathologist might report, for example, that you have squamous cell carcinoma and alveolar soft part sarcoma--both classified as stage IV cancers because they cannot be removed surgically.
If you are diagnosed with cancer at stage I or II, then you are most likely to need surgery alone. For patients who are diagnosed with cancer at stage III or IV, they must take into consideration the possibility of radiation, chemotherapy, or both. It is important to know your cancer stages so that you can begin treatment as soon as possible.