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The stage of a cancer describes its size, position and whether it has spread beyond where it started in the body.
Knowing the extent of the cancer helps the doctors decide on the most appropriate treatment.
Generally, cancer is divided into four stages:
If the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, this is known as secondary or metastatic cancer. If the cancer comes back after initial treatment it’s known as recurrent cancer.
The current staging system is used for both small cell and non-small cell lung cancers. This aims to help doctors plan the best treatment for people with lung cancer. It can also help to give an idea of the likely outcome of treatment.
Although the current staging system is for both non-small cell and small cell lung cancers, there is another system that has been used for many years, which you may hear your doctors refer to. This system divides small cell lung cancers into two stages:
Small cell lung cancer often spreads outside the lung quite early on. Even if the doctor can’t see any evidence of the spread on your scans, it’s likely that some cancer cells will have broken away and travelled through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.
To be safe, small cell lung cancers are usually treated as though they have spread, whether any secondary cancer can be seen or not.
Non-small cell lung cancer is usually divided into four stages.
The cancer is very localised and hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes. This stage is divided in two:
Stage 2 cancer is also divided in two:
Stage 3 cancer is also divided in two:
The cancer has spread to a distant part of the body such as the liver, bones or the brain.
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Content last reviewed: 1 September 2012
Next planned review: 2014
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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