Today I want to help you understand what are the stages of cancer and what it actually means for the patient and those around them.
Many of us are probably familiar with the terms Stage I cancer, Stage II cancer, thru to Stage IV (1 thru 4), but there are actually 5 stages; there is also a Stage 0. But what do these numbers mean and what are they actually telling us?
History and Development of Cancer Staging Systems
The most popular staging system used by doctors and hospitals is the TNM System, whereby:
- ‘T‘, or Tumour Descriptor, refers to the size of the tumour and whether or not it has invaded adjacent tissue.
- ‘N‘, or Nodal Descriptor, refers to nearby lymph nodes that maybe involved.
- ‘M‘, or Metastasis Descriptor, refers to the extent that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
The concept of a common cancer staging system was first introduced in 1929 by the Cancer Commission of the League of Nations Health Organization who set up the Radiological Sub-Commission to create a system that would provide an effective means of communication between institutions around the world.
The concept was further championed by a Dr. Pierre Denoix who further broadened and refined the system during the years 1943 to 1952.
The TNM system was adopted by the International Congress of Radiology in 1953 for laryngeal and breast cancer and the International Union Against Cancer (UICC) in 1954. Dr. Denoix continued to further develop the system through the 1960’s resulting in a standard classification system for a total of 23 solid tumour cancers.
In 1959, the American Joint Committee for Cancer Staging and End Results Reporting (AJC) began work on formulating objectives, rules, and regulations for a classification system and reporting of cancer. In 1969, the AJC and UICC agreed that any further staging recommendations would be published in consultation with each other.
In 1977, the first Manual for Staging of Cancer was published and as medical research and practice lead to further discoveries, the manual has been updated over the years and is now in its 8th Edition.
The manual has become the worldwide standard for TNM information and provides a means by which the designation for the state of a cancer at various points in time can be communicated to others to assist in prognosis and determination of the kind of treatment to be applied.
While the TNM system is the most common method for describing cancers that form solid tumours, it is not used for say brain tumours or blood related cancers, such as leukaemia or Hodgkin’s disease. These cancers are usually staged based on their unique or specific characteristics.
The Five Stages of Cancer
This is the earliest and most treatable form of cancer. Often referred to as carcinoma in situ, the abnormal cells are located at the specific area where they originated, they haven’t spread to nearby tissue and are detected within the top layer of cells at the affected area or organ.
In many cases, doctors will recommend surgery or targeted radiation therapy. This has led to some concern, particularly for women who have been diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer and undergone what some believe to be unnecessary lumpectomy, mastectomy, or even double mastectomy.
At this stage, there is definitely a natural option through change of diet, avoiding processed foods, and taking the necessary natural supplements to boost the immune system.
At this point, the abnormal cells have started to clump together and penetrate beneath the top layer of cells. The cancer is still limited to the original area and has not yet reached the blood stream or the lymph system. This is still considered an “early stage” cancer but again many doctors will insist on implementing some form of immediate treatment protocol, either surgery, radiation, or both. In some cases they may also recommend hormone therapy.
But again, at this early stage, the prognosis is still very viable for considering the use alternative treatments such as change in diet, use of supplements, and lifestyle changes. This will help to fight the cancer and prevent it from returning while still avoiding the side effects of the conventional treatments.
Whichever path you choose to follow, Stage I cancer is still very treatable and has a high success rate for curing the majority of patients.
This is simply a stage between Stages I and III whereby the cancer cells have started to form a small tumour larger than Stage I but still within the original location. It may have penetrated the surrounding tissue but has not yet spread to other organs within the body. There are cases where the cancer cells are found in nearby lymph nodes which are also classed as Stage II.
Cancer in the lymph nodes is normally a sign that the cancer has indeed started to spread as some cancer cells may have broken away from the original site, but the doctors may not know the origin, or if other cancer cells have moved to parts of the body.
Conventional treatment may involve radical surgery or radiotherapy. From an alternative perspective, boosting the immune system is essential to trigger the necessary immune response to fight against the cancer cells and possibly destroy them.
By now the tumour has grown significantly and spread into the surrounding tissues and the lymph nodes. Conventional treatments at this stage include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or systemic drug therapies.
The use of alternative therapies at this stage is a more difficult decision to make, but again improving the immune system will reduce the chances of succumbing to other infectious diseases where even a flu bug could be potentially dangerous to a patient undergoing chemotherapy. At the very least, alternative therapies can reduce or alleviate the side effects of the conventional treatments.
This is the most advanced form of cancer whereby the cancer cells have entered the blood stream and spread from their original location to other parts of the body. Also known as metastatic or secondary cancer, it is by far the most difficult to treat and in some cases cannot be cured in the long term.
Although treatment can help to shrink or control the cancer, it is likely that it will reappear unless the necessary adjustments are made to lifestyle and nutrition. It is in this regard that alternative treatments can be complimentary to treatments and provide a better chance of survival.
Having said that, there are many success stories of people treating and surviving Stage IV cancer using both conventional and natural therapies, so having Stage IV cancer should not be considered an automatic death sentence.
Living With Cancer
At the time of my diagnosis we did not discuss what ‘stage’ of cancer I had, just the next steps to be taken to determine where the primary cancer was.
It could have been all too easy to fall into despair and despondency, to give up, and lose all hope, but I felt it was important to maintain hope and to arm myself with the knowledge and tools to make a stand and fight the cancer.
Information is essential to help the patient make informed decisions and to discuss the options with their doctor. Treatment decisions should be a personal choice, and understanding the pros and cons of each form of treatment will help them to make that choice.
Social support is critical, especially if treatment of the cancer is going to take a long time. It’s easy for loved ones to be there at the beginning, but they need to understand that the support will be needed for the long haul. Continued encouragement and support will help the patient to retain hope, to feel normal, and to remain positive. Many studies have shown that strong emotional support and a having a positive outlook can greatly benefit the patient. It is all too important to help the patient maintain the will to live and to not give up.
Help the patient to feel as normal as possible, encourage interest in new hobbies, bring them on trips, laugh and joke; for special occasions such as birthdays or Christmas, celebrate. Just be aware that your friend may tire easily, may not be as strong as they used to be, so be patient, caring, loving.
As a friend to someone who has cancer, the American Cancer Society has an excellent article on ‘How to Be a Friend to Someone With Cancer’.
You might also want to check out this video, a story of five people who made their stand against cancer:
I wish you well, and please remember, cancer is not a death sentence; I beat it, many people have beaten it… So can you!
If you have any questions or want to share your thoughts, feel free to comment below or drop me an email. I will support you as best I can.
Lung Cancer Staging: An Overview of the New Staging System, and Implications for Radiographic Clinical Staging
Wikipedia – TNM Staging System
The Truth About Cancer – 17 Cancer Facts Every Person Needs Know