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Lung Cancer Staging

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If you don't already know your lung cancer stage, ask your doctor. Make sure you know what the numbers and letters associated with the stage mean and how the stage will influence your lung cancer treatment options.

Key Points

  • Lung cancer staging means finding out:
    • Where the lung cancer cells are located.
    • The size of the lung cancer tumor.
    • If and where the lung cancer has spread.
  • Lung cancer staging helps determine what treatment options you have.
  • Staging gives some information about lung cancer prognosis, but does not predict how long you will live.

In Lung Cancer Basics, we discuss the main types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Lung cancer staging is the next step in the lung cancer diagnosis process. Your team will use results from tests and tissue samples to determine your lung cancer stage. Staging helps determine your recommended treatment plan.

Three factors are used to determine lung cancer stage (sometimes referred to as the TNM classification system). The stage of your lung cancer is determined by a combination of all of these factors.

  • T – Tumor size and location
  • N – Regional lymph node involvement. Lymph nodes are small ball-shaped immune system organs distributed throughout the body. It is important to know whether the lung cancer has spread to the lymph nodes around the lung.
  • M – Metastasis status. Metastasis status refers to which organs the cancer has spread.

Non-small cell lung cancer stages range from one to four, usually expressed in Roman numerals (I through IV). The lower the lung cancer stage, the less the cancer has spread. Small cell lung cancer is described using two stages: limited and extensive.

Lung cancer staging also is used to discuss the general outlook for your recovery. This is sometimes called a lung cancer prognosis. Doctors can estimate prognosis based on the experiences of other people with the same type and stage of cancer. Keep in mind that no one knows for sure how your cancer will respond to treatment. Every person is different.

Learn more about how lung cancer is diagnosed »

    Approved by Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed November 3, 2016.

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