Cancer Stages: What Do Cancer Stages and Grades Mean?

by | Mar 23, 2023 | Cancer Stages

When diagnosed with cancer, among the first questions patients ask is, what stage is it, and what does that mean in terms of my survival?

The information about cancer stages we are providing you with comes from the National Cancer Institute.

The stage of a cancer describes the size of a tumor and how far it has spread from where it originated. The grade describes the appearance of the cancerous cells.

If you’re diagnosed with cancer, you may have more tests to help determine how far it has progressed. Including x-rays, blood tests, and MRI, CT and/or PET scans.

Staging and grading the cancer will allow the doctors to determine its size, whether it has spread and the best treatment options.

Stage refers to the extent of your cancer, such as how large the tumor is and if it has spread. Knowing the stage of your cancer helps your doctor

  • understand how serious your cancer is and your chances of survival
  • plan the best treatment for you
  • identify clinical trials that may be treatment options for you

A cancer is always referred to by the stage it was given at diagnosis, even if it gets worse or spreads.

Cancer Stages:

There are 2 main types of staging systems used for different types of cancer.

Number Staging System:

Sometimes doctors use a number staging system. The Number Stages Are:

  • Stage 0 – the cancer is where it started (in situ) and hasn’t spread
  • Stage 1 – the cancer is small and hasn’t spread anywhere else
  • Stage 2 – the cancer has grown, but hasn’t spread
  • Stage 3 – the cancer is larger and may have spread to the surrounding tissues and/or the lymph nodes (or “glands”, part of the immune system)
  • Stage 4 – the cancer has spread from where it started to at least 1 other body organ, also known as “secondary” or “metastatic” cancer
  • Stage 5 is there a Stage 5, is it a thing? The term stage 5 isn’t used with most types of cancer. Most advanced cancers are grouped into stage 4. An exception is Wilms tumor, or nephroblastoma, a childhood cancer that originates in the kidneys. Stage 5 Wilms tumors are those that affect both kidneys.

Other Most Asked Questions:

  • Has Anyone Survived Stage 4 Cancer? Although the overall prognosis may be poor based on cases with previous patients and older treatments, many patients with stage 4 cancer can live for years. A few factors to keep in mind: Today there are many treatments available to help fight cancer. The body’s response to treatment differs from patient to patient. 
  • Does Metastatic Mean Terminal?
  • In some situations, metastatic cancer can be cured. But for most metastatic cancers, treatment does not cure the cancer but it can slow its growth and reduce symptoms. It is possible to live for many months or years with certain types of cancer, even after the development of metastatic disease.

Let’s move on to the TNM Staging System:

The TNM system uses letters and numbers to describe the cancer. This system is used in different ways depending on the kind of cancer you have.

  • T describes the size of the tumor, with numbers 1 to 4 (1 for small, 4 for large)
  • N stands for lymph nodes, with numbers 0 to 3 (0 means no lymph nodes have cancer, 3 means many do)
  • M stands for metastases or whether the cancer has spread to another part of the body, with numbers 0 or 1 (0 means it has not spread, 1 means it has)

What Grading Is?

You may hear your doctor talk about the grade of your cancer. Tumor grade describes a tumor in terms of how abnormal the tumor cells are when compared to normal cells. It also describes how abnormal the tissues look under a microscope.

The grade gives your doctor some idea of how the cancer might behave. A low grade cancer is likely to grow more slowly and be less likely to spread than a high grade one. Doctors can’t be certain exactly how the cells will behave. But the grade is a useful indicator.

Doctors sometimes look at the cancer grade to help stage the cancer. The stage of a cancer describes how big the cancer is and whether it has spread or not.

Common Grading Systems:

Some types of cancer have their own grading systems but generally, there are 3 grades:

Grade 1 – the cancer cells look very similar to normal cells and are growing slowly (low grade)

Grade 2 – the cells don’t look like normal cells and are growing more quickly than normal (intermediate grade)

Grade 3 – the cancer cells look very abnormal and are growing quickly (high grade)

Some systems have more than 3 grades.

GX means that doctors can’t assess the grade. It is also called undetermined grade.


Another way of describing the cells is by how differentiated they are. Differentiation refers to: How well developed the tumor cells are

How cancer cells are organized in the tumor tissue

When cells and tissue structures are very similar to normal tissues, the tumor is called well differentiated. These tumors tend to grow and spread slowly.

On a poorly differentiated, or an undifferentiated tumor, the cells look very abnormal and are not arranged in the usual way. So the normal structures and tissue patterns are missing. These tumors may be more likely to spread into surrounding tissues or to other parts of the body.

Cancer Grade and Treatments:

Your treatment team looks at: The grade and stage of the tumor

Your age

Your general health

This helps them to predict the likely outcome of the cancer and decide on the best treatment.

A tumor with a lower grade tends to have a better outlook. A higher grade cancer may grow and spread more quickly. It usually needs faster or more intensive treatment.

For some types of cancer, the grade is very important in planning treatment and the possible outcome. 

These include:

Soft tissue sarcoma

Primary brain tumors

Breast cancer

Prostate cancer

Ask your doctor for specific information about the tumor grade. They can explain to you how the grade relates to the treatment and the possible outcome.

To learn more about staging for your type of cancer, see the PDQ® cancer treatment summaries for adult and childhood cancers.

Related Resources

At CyberKnife Miami, while our oncology team certainly considers the stage a cancer patient is at, we don’t just focus on that. 

There are so many treatment options available today to help patients fight cancer, cure it, or manage it, living for many more months and years to come. So to us the stage of cancer doesn’t mean that much any more.

What matters is designing a treatment plan for every patient’s particular needs, a plan that will help them fight their cancer with the least disruption to their life, and allowing them to have quality of life while undergoing treatment. 

Putting patients first is our priority. More, better, faster, safer and effective cancer treatment is what we deliver.

Call the top cancer doctors in Miami at our cancer center, the CyberKnife Center of Miami at 305-279-2900.