Making Sense of Prostate Cancer Tumor Stages

The TNM (tumor, nodes, metastasis) staging system is used to describe prostate cancer’s clinical stage, or how far it has spread (metastasized), and helps determine appropriate treatment options.

Normal Prostate-1

The staging system assigns a T number (T1 to T4) to describe the extent of the tumor as felt during a digital rectal exam. The N number (N0 to N1) indicates whether the cancer has spread to any lymph nodes, and the M number (M0 to M1) indicates the presence or absence of metastasis (spread to distant sites). The T and M designations are divided into subcategories (designated a, b, and c) that provide further detail on the extent of the cancer. Here’s what each stage means:



The tumor cannot be felt during the digital rectal exam or seen with diagnostic imaging.

• T1a: Tumor found incidentally during surgery for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and is present in less than 5 percent of removed tissue.

• T1b: Tumor found incidentally during BPH surgery but involves more than 5 percent of removed tissue.

• T1c: Tumor found during needle biopsy for elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA).

Making Sense of Prostate Cancer Tumor Stages-Stage T2a-prostate
Making Sense of Prostate Cancer Tumor Stages-stage T2b-prostate


The tumor can be felt during the digital rectal exam but is believed to be confined to the gland.

• T2a: Tumor involves one-half or less of one side of the prostate.

• T2b: Tumor involves more than one-half of one side but not both sides.

• T2c: Tumor involves both sides of the prostate.

Making Sense of Prostate Cancer Tumor Stages-Stage T3-prostate


The tumor extends through the prostate capsule and may involve the seminal vesicles.

• T3a: Tumor extends through the capsule but does not involve the seminal vesicles.

• T3b: Tumor has spread to the seminal vesicles.

Making Sense of Prostate Cancer Tumor Stages-Stage T4-prostate


The tumor has invaded adjacent structures (other than the seminal vesicles), such as the bladder neck, rectum or pelvic wall.


Cancer has not spread to any lymph nodes.


Cancer has spread to one or more regional lymph nodes (nodes in the pelvic region).


There is no distant metastasis.


There is distant metastasis.

• M1a: Cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes.

• M1b: Cancer has spread to the bones.

• M1c: Cancer has spread to other organs, with or without bone involvement.

Meet Our Writer

HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.