Chasing Away Childhood Cancer

What Is Cancer Staging?

While the term ‘cancer staging’ is quite common today, many of us may be too embarrassed to admit we have no idea what this actually refers to. Cancer staging is simply describing the severity of the disease, which is based on the original size and extent of the tumor found in the patient. Clinical staging happens when the patient is first diagnosed, and helps the doctor plan treatment accordingly. Pathologic staging refers to a combination of the clinical stage with the results from a surgery or biopsy performed after initial diagnosis. However, the initial cancer stage will always be used to refer to the patient’s cancer, even if it worsens with time. One of the most commonly used cancer staging systems is known as the TNM, which stands for and evaluates the Primary Tumor, Regional Lymph Nodes, and Distant Metastasis (the spread of the disease from the initial to other sites in the body). With the TNM, the stages span from zero to four, where stage four means the cancer has spread to other tissues and organs in the body. TNM however, is not always used for cancer staging due to the fact that certain types of cancers do not have TNM designations. Cancers of the blood, known as lymphomas, for example, would be staged with the Ann Arbor staging system. When it comes to actually determining the stage of the cancer, various tests are conducted depending on the type of cancer. These tests include: physical exams, imaging studies, laboratory tests, pathology reports, and surgical reports. The final process of staging, known as restaging, will occur after the patient’s treatment is done to assess the success of the cancer’s response to the treatment.  Not only does cancer staging help the doctor plan the appropriate treatment and estimate the prognosis for the patient, but it furthermore aids health care providers and researchers in terms of providing for their patients. For even more detailed information on cancer staging, talk to a doctor or call the NCI’s Cancer Information Service.