ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about how doctors describe a cancer’s growth or spread. This is called the stage. Use the menu to see other pages.
Staging is a way of describing where the cancer is located, how much the cancer has grown, and if or where it has spread. Doctors use diagnostic tests to find out the cancer's stage, so staging may not be complete until all the tests are finished. Knowing the stage helps the doctor to decide what kind of treatment is best and can help predict a patient's prognosis, which is the chance of recovery. There are different stage descriptions for different types of cancer.
TNM staging system
The most commonly used tool that doctors use to describe the stage is the TNM system. Doctors use the results from diagnostic tests and scans to answer these questions:
Tumor (T): How large is the primary tumor? Where is it located?
Node (N): Has the tumor spread to the lymph nodes? If so, where and how many?
Metastasis (M): Has the cancer spread to other parts of the body? If so, where and how much?
The results are combined to determine the stage of cancer for each person. The stage provides a common way of describing the cancer, so doctors can work together to plan the best treatments.
Staging can be clinical or pathological. Clinical staging is based on the results of tests done before surgery, which may include a physical examination, mammogram, ultrasound, and MRI scans. Pathological staging is based on the pathology results from the breast tissue and any lymph nodes removed during surgery. The results are usually available several days after surgery. In general, more importance is placed on the pathological stage than the clinical stage.
Cancer stage grouping
Doctors assign the stage of the cancer by combining the T, N, and M classifications. Read about specific T, N, and M classifications in the Guide to Breast Cancer. They also use other factors, such as tumor grade and the results of ER/PR and HER2 testing to determine the stage and your prognosis (see Diagnosis).
Inflammatory breast cancer is generally considered stage IIIB breast cancer when it is first diagnosed. It may be diagnosed as stage IV if it has spread outside the breast and lymph nodes. Read more about these stages below. To learn more about all stages of breast cancer, read the Guide to Breast Cancer.
Stage IIIB: The inflammatory breast cancer may or may not have spread to the axillary or internal mammary lymph nodes. It has not spread to other parts of the body (T4; N0, N1 or N2; M0).
Stage IIIC: The inflammatory breast cancer has spread to 10 or more axillary lymph nodes, the internal mammary lymph nodes, and/or the lymph nodes under the collarbone. It has not spread to other parts of the body (any T, N3, M0).
Stage IV (metastatic): The inflammatory breast cancer has spread to other organs, such as the bones, lungs, brain, liver, distant lymph nodes, or chest wall (any T, any N, M1). Learn more about metastatic breast cancer.
Recurrent: Recurrent cancer is cancer that has come back after treatment. A breast cancer recurrence can be either local or distant or both. If the cancer does return, there will be another round of tests to learn about the extent of the recurrence. These tests and scans are often similar to those done at the time of the original diagnosis.
Used with permission of the American College of Surgeons, Chicago, Illinois. The original and primary source for this information is the AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, Eighth Edition (2017) published by Springer International Publishing.
Information about the cancer’s stage will help the doctor recommend a specific treatment plan. The next section in this guide is Types of Treatment. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.