Stages of cancer

The stage of a cancer describes how far the cancer has grown and spread at the time of diagnosis.

Stages are used to describe the spread of solid tumours, like breast, bowel or lung cancers. Blood cancers, such as leukaemias or lymphomas, behave differently and are described in different ways.

What is cancer staging?

Staging is the process of measuring how far a cancer has spread when it is first diagnosed. It often involves having scans, biopsies and other tests.

Knowing the stage of a cancer is important as it helps doctors to work out the best treatment options.

It also means the person with cancer can fully understand their situation and discuss any concerns they have.

There are different staging systems for different cancers, but they generally use either the:

What is the numbered system?

The numbered system combines the TNM system and any other relevant information to group cancers into overall stages. These are given stage numbers to show how far the cancer has spread:

Stage 0 cancer

Abnormal cells are present but have not spread from where they started. It is often referred to as ‘in-situ’ cancer.

Stage 1 cancer

The cancer is small and has only spread a little into nearby tissues. It has not spread to any lymph nodes or other body areas.

Stage 2 and 3 cancer

The cancer is larger or has spread into nearby tissues or lymph nodes.

Stage 4 cancer

The cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Stage 4 cancer is also called metastatic cancer or advanced cancer.

What is the TNM system?

The TNM system uses the results from x-rays, scans, biopsies and other tests to provide information about a person’s cancer.

This is recorded in three categories represented by the letters TNM, each followed by a number or letter showing the extent of the cancer:

T (tumour) 

T shows how large the tumour or primary cancer is and whether it has spread into nearby tissues. The numbers 1 to 4 are used to provide information about this.

N (nodes) 

N shows whether the cancer has spread into any nearby lymph nodes and how many nodes are involved. 0 means no lymph nodes are affected, while the numbers 1 to 3 show that nodes are involved and indicate how many.

M (metastasis)

M shows whether the cancer has spread from where it started to other parts of the body, which is known as metastasis. 0 means no spread and 1 means it has spread.

Cancer support for patients and carers

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, it is important to be informed and get involved in decisions about your care. Take your T.I.P.S. information sheet with you to your appointment with your treating doctor.

Discuss each element with your doctor so they can provide the information that is most relevant to you.

Examples of questions you can ask include:

  • What type of cancer do I have?
  • Has the cancer spread?
  • Is it possible to cure or control my cancer?
  • What support services can I access?
  • When do I see you again?

See our cancer care tips, for ways to improve your cancer care.

Visit CanRefer to find recommended specialists and hospitals across NSW and ACT that are right for diagnosing and treating your suspected or confirmed cancer type.

There are many physical, emotional and practical things to deal with when you have cancer. It is important to know that there are people and organisations available to help you.

Use this section to find out where you can get help and support.

The Cancer Council Australia provides more information for people recently diagnosed - you can also call their support line 13 11 20.

Learn more about staging for different types of cancer