The stage and grade of bowel cancer describes its size, whether it has spread and how quickly it may develop.

Staging of bowel cancer

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread. Knowing the stage of the cancer helps doctors decide on the best treatment for you. The most commonly used staging system is the TNM system.

TNM staging system

T – describes how far the tumour has grown into the wall of the bowel, and whether it has grown into nearby tissues or organs.

N – describes whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

M – describes whether the cancer has spread to another part of the body such as the liver or lungs (secondary or metastatic cancer).

T – Tumour

The bowel wall is made up of layers of different tissues.

  • Tis means the cancer is at its earliest stage (in situ). It is growing into the mucosa but no further.
  • T1 means the tumour is only in the inner layer of the bowel (submucosa).
  • T2 means the tumour has grown into the muscle layer of the bowel wall but no further.
  • T3 means the tumour has grown into the outer lining of the bowel wall (serosa) but no further.
  • T4 means the tumour has grown through the outer layer of the bowel wall (serosa) and through the membrane covering the outside of the bowel wall (peritoneum).
    • T4a means it has grown into other nearby structures, such as other parts of the bowel or other organs or body structures.
    • T4b means the tumour has caused a hole in the bowel wall (perforation) and cancer cells have spread outside the bowel.

Cross section of the colon

N – Nodes

  • N0 means no lymph nodes contain cancer cells.
  • N1 means there are cancer cells in up to three nearby lymph nodes.
  • N2 means there are cancer cells in four or more nearby lymph nodes.

M – Metastases

  • M0 means the cancer has not spread to distant organs.
  • M1 means the cancer has spread to distant organs such as the liver or lungs.

Number staging system

Information from the TNM system can be used to give a number stage from 0 to 4.

Stage 0

The cancer is at its earliest stage and is only in the mucosa (Tis N0 M0).

Stage 1

The cancer has grown into the submucosa or muscle but has not spread to the lymph nodes or elsewhere (T1 N0 M0 or T2 N0 M0).

Stage 2

The cancer has grown through the muscle wall or through the outer layer of the bowel, and may be growing into tissues nearby. The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes or elsewhere (T3 N0 M0 or T4 N0 M0).

Stage 3

The tumour is any size and has spread to lymph nodes nearby, but has not spread anywhere else in the body (Any T N1 M0 or Any T N2 M0).

Stage 4

The tumour is any size. It may have spread to nearby lymph nodes. The cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as the liver or lungs (Any T Any N M1).

Grading of bowel cancer

The grade gives doctors an idea of how quickly a cancer may develop. Doctors will look at a sample of the cancer cells under a microscope to find the grade of the cancer.

Grade 1 (low-grade)

The cancer cells tend to grow slowly and look similar to normal cells (they are well differentiated). These cancers are less likely to spread than higher grade cancers.

Grade 2 (moderate-grade)

The cancer cells look more abnormal.

Grade 3 (high-grade)

The cancer cells tend to grow more quickly and look very abnormal (they are poorly differentiated). These cancers are more likely to spread than low-grade cancers.

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