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What is the stage of a cancer?

The stage of a bladder cancer describes how far it has spread. It’s one of the most important factors in choosing treatment options and predicting a person’s prognosis (outlook). If you have bladder cancer, ask your cancer care team to explain its stage. This can help you make informed choices about your treatment.

There are actually 2 types of stages for bladder cancer.

  • The clinical stage is the doctor’s best estimate of the extent of the cancer, based on the results of physical exams, cystoscopy, biopsies, and any imaging tests that are done (such as CT scans). These exams and tests are described in Tests for bladder cancer.
  • If surgery is done to treat the cancer, the pathologic stage can be determined using the same factors as the clinical stage, plus what is found during surgery.

The clinical stage is used to help plan treatment. Sometimes, though, the cancer has spread farther than the clinical stage estimates. Pathologic staging is likely to be more accurate, because it gives your doctor a firsthand impression of the extent of your cancer.

Understanding your bladder cancer stage

A staging system is a standard way for the cancer care team to describe how far a cancer has spread. The staging system most often used for bladder cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system, which is based on 3 key pieces of information:

  • T describes how far the main (primary) tumor has grown through the bladder wall and whether it has grown into nearby tissues.
  • N indicates any cancer spread to lymph nodes near the bladder. Lymph nodes are bean-sized collections of immune system cells, to which cancers often spread first.
  • M indicates whether or not the cancer has spread (metastasized) to distant sites, such as other organs or lymph nodes that are not near the bladder.

Numbers or letters appear after T, N, and M to provide more details about each of these factors. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced.

T categories for bladder cancer

The T category describes how far the main tumor has grown into the wall of the bladder (or beyond).

The wall of the bladder has 4 main layers.

  • The innermost lining is called the urothelium or transitional epithelium.
  • Beneath the urothelium is a thin layer of connective tissue, blood vessels, and nerves.
  • Next is a thick layer of muscle.
  • Outside of this muscle, a layer of fatty connective tissue separates the bladder from other nearby organs.

Nearly all bladder cancers start in the urothelium. As the cancer grows into or through the other layers in the bladder, it becomes more advanced.

TX: Main tumor cannot be assessed due to lack of information

T0: No evidence of a primary tumor

Ta: Non-invasive papillary carcinoma

Tis: Non-invasive flat carcinoma (flat carcinoma in situ, or CIS)

(For a description of papillary and flat carcinomas, see What is bladder cancer?)

T1: The tumor has grown from the layer of cells lining the bladder into the connective tissue below. It has not grown into the muscle layer of the bladder.

T2: The tumor has grown into the muscle layer.

  • T2a: The tumor has grown only into the inner half of the muscle layer.
  • T2b: The tumor has grown into the outer half of the muscle layer.

T3: The tumor has grown through the muscle layer of the bladder and into the fatty tissue layer that surrounds it.

  • T3a: The spread to fatty tissue can only be seen by using a microscope.
  • T3b: The spread to fatty tissue is large enough to be seen on imaging tests or to be seen or felt by the surgeon.

T4: The tumor has spread beyond the fatty tissue and into nearby organs or structures. It may be growing into any of the following: the stroma (main tissue) of the prostate, the seminal vesicles, uterus, vagina, pelvic wall, or abdominal wall.

  • T4a: The tumor has spread to the stroma of the prostate (in men), or to the uterus and/or vagina (in women).
  • T4b: The tumor has spread to the pelvic wall or the abdominal wall.

Bladder cancer can sometimes affect many areas of the bladder at the same time. If more than one tumor is found, the letter m is added to the appropriate T category.

N categories for bladder cancer

The N category describes spread only to the lymph nodes near the bladder (in the true pelvis) and those along the blood vessel called the common iliac artery. These lymph nodes are called regional lymph nodes. Any other lymph nodes are considered distant lymph nodes. Spread to distant nodes is considered metastasis (described in the M category). Surgery is usually needed to find cancer spread to lymph nodes, since it is not often seen on imaging tests.

NX: Regional lymph nodes cannot be assessed due to lack of information.

N0: There is no regional lymph node spread.

N1: The cancer has spread to a single lymph node in the true pelvis.

N2: The cancer has spread to 2 or more lymph nodes in the true pelvis.

N3: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes along the common iliac artery.

M categories for bladder cancer

M0: There are no signs of distant spread.

M1: The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body. (The most common sites are distant lymph nodes, the bones, the lungs, and the liver.)

Stages of bladder cancer

Once the T, N, and M categories have been determined, this information is combined to find the overall cancer stage. Bladder cancer stages are defined using 0 and the Roman numerals I to IV (1 to 4). Stage 0 is the earliest stage, while stage IV is the most advanced.

Stage 0a (Ta, N0, M0)

The cancer is a non-invasive papillary carcinoma (Ta). It has grown toward the hollow center of the bladder but has not grown into the connective tissue or muscle of the bladder wall. It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or distant sites (M0).

Stage 0is (Tis, N0, M0)

The cancer is a flat, non-invasive carcinoma (Tis), also known as flat carcinoma in situ (CIS). The cancer is growing in the inner lining layer of the bladder only. It has not grown inward toward the hollow part of the bladder, nor has it invaded the connective tissue or muscle of the bladder wall. It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or distant sites (M0).

Stage I (T1, N0, M0)

The cancer has grown into the layer of connective tissue under the lining layer of the bladder but has not reached the layer of muscle in the bladder wall (T1). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

Stage II (T2a or T2b, N0, M0)

The cancer has grown into the thick muscle layer of the bladder wall, but it has not passed completely through the muscle to reach the layer of fatty tissue that surrounds the bladder (T2). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

Stage III (T3a, T3b, or T4a, N0, M0)

The cancer has grown into the layer of fatty tissue that surrounds the bladder (T3a or T3b). It might have spread into the prostate, uterus, or vagina, but it is not growing into the pelvic or abdominal wall (T4a). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

Stage IV

One of the following applies:

T4b, N0, M0: The cancer has grown through the bladder wall and into the pelvic or abdominal wall (T4b). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

OR

Any T, N1 to N3, M0: The cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes (N1-N3) but not to distant sites (M0).

OR

Any T, any N, M1: The cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or to sites such as the bones, liver, or lungs (M1).


Last Medical Review: 01/26/2016
Last Revised: 05/23/2016