The stage of a cancer is a word used to describe its size and whether it has spread beyond its original site. Knowing the extent of the cancer helps the doctors decide on the best treatment for you.

The staging of the different types of head and neck cancer are all slightly different. Your doctor or nurse can tell you more about the stage of your cancer.

The two main ways used to stage head and neck cancers are the TNM system and the number system.

TNM staging

  • T describes the size of the tumour. This will be a number between 0 –4 depending on the size and spread of the tumour.
  • N describes whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and which nodes are involved. This will be a number between 0–3 depending on how many lymph nodes contain cancer cells, where they are and their size.
  • M describes whether the cancer has spread to another part of the body such as the lungs. This is called secondary or metastatic cancer. The M stage will be 0 if it hasn’t spread and 1 if it has.

Number staging

There are usually three or four number stages for each cancer type. Stage 1 describes a cancer at an early stage when it’s usually small in size and hasn’t spread. Stage 4 describes a cancer at a more advanced stage when it has usually spread to other parts of the body.

Other terms used

  • ‘Early’ or ‘local’ may be used to describe a cancer that has not spread.
  • ‘Locally advanced’ describes a cancer that has begun to spread into surrounding tissues or nearby lymph nodes.
  • ‘Local recurrence’ means the cancer has come back in the same area after treatment.
  • ‘Secondary’, ‘advanced’, ‘widespread’ or ‘metastatic’ means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

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Your treatment will depend on the position of the cancer and its stage. You may need a combination of treatments.

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