Breast Cancer Stages

The most common 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 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.

There are 5 stages: stage 0 (zero), which is non-invasive ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and stages I through IV (1 through 4), which are used for invasive breast cancer. The stage provides a common way of describing 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 physical examinations, mammograms, ultrasound, and MRI scans. Pathologic staging is based on what is found during surgery to remove breast tissue and lymph nodes. The results are usually available several days after surgery. In general, pathological staging provides the most information to determine a patient’s prognosis.

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