CancerCancer Stages

Let's Talk About the Stages of Cancer

A cancer diagnosis comes with a "stage." It's important to understand what that means so you can understand exactly what's going on in your body and get the most effective treatment possible.

    Our Pro PanelCancer Stages

    We went to some of the nation's top experts in cancer to bring you the most up-to-date information possible.

    Josephine (Joy) Feliciano, M.D. headshot.

    Josephine (Joy) Feliciano, M.D.Medical Oncologist, Assistant Professor of Oncology

    The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
    Baltimore, MD
    Swati Kulkarni, M.D. headshot.

    Swati Kulkarni, M.D.Surgical Oncologist, Associate Professor of Surgery

    Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern Medicine
    Chicago, IL
    Dale Shepard, M.D., Ph.D.

    Dale Shepard, M.D., Ph.D.Medical Oncologist (specializing in 18 cancers)

    Cleveland Clinic Hematology and Medical Oncology
    Cleveland, OH

    Frequently Asked QuestionsCancer Stages

    1. How many stages of cancer are there?

    This differs, depending on your type of cancer and whether there’s a staging system for it. Many cancers are staged via grouping staging—otherwise known as stages 0, I, II, III, and IV. This comes after the TNM (tumor/node/metastasis) staging system, which relies on a more precise set of numbers and letters to describe the exact location, size, and spread of your cancer; health professionals use the TNM system to discuss your specific cancer case. Some cancers—including blood cancers such as leukemia and central nervous system tumors (think, brain cancer)—don’t have a staging system at all.

    2. What is stage 0 cancer?

    This stage of cancer is also known as carcinoma in situ (CIS), which means you have abnormal cells that may become cancer and spread into nearby tissue but haven’t yet. If you were wondering, “in situ” just means in its original place, so these are abnormal cells that haven’t yet grown much, but they’re not normal, healthy cells, which is why they have the potential to spread. These abnormal cells used to be referred to as “precancerous cells.”

    3. What is stage IV cancer?

    Known as metastatic disease, stage IV is when your cancer has advanced and spread to multiple places in your body. It’s often not possible to be cured of cancer at this stage, but you can potentially live years with advanced stage cancer and have a good quality of life; this is thanks to new treatments such as targeted therapy, which includes hormonal therapy and immunotherapy.

    4. How are the stages of cancer determined?

    They’re based on a multitude of factors, including where your cancer is located, how far your primary tumor (where your cancer started) has spread and to where, and its size. Take a look for yourself here.

    Erin L. Boyle

    Erin L. Boyle


    Erin L. Boyle, the senior editor at HealthCentral from 2016-2018, is a freelance medical writer and editor.