Kidney Cancer (Adult) Renal Cell Carcinoma Overview

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Staging of kidney cancer

The stage of a cancer describes how far it has spread. Your treatment and the outlook for your recovery depend, to a large extent, on the stage of your cancer.

The stage is based on the results of the physical exam, biopsies, and imaging tests (CT scan, chest x-ray, PET scan, etc.), which are described in the section “How is kidney cancer found?

There are actually 2 types of staging for kidney cancer:

  • The clinical stage is your doctor’s best idea of the extent of your disease, based on the results of the physical exam, lab tests, and any imaging tests you have had.
  • If you have surgery, your doctors can also find out the pathologic stage, which is based on the same factors as the clinical stage, plus what is found during surgery and how the removed tissue looks under a microscope.

This means that if you have surgery the stage of your cancer might change – for example, if it has spread farther than was thought at first.

A staging system is a standard way for the cancer care team to describe the extent of the cancer. The most common staging system for kidney cancer is the AJCC staging system (sometimes also known as the TNM system). It uses 3 key pieces of information:

  • T is based the size of the main tumor and whether it has grown into nearby areas.
  • N describes the extent of spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • M tells whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body.

The T, N, and M categories are combined to get an overall stage, using Roman numerals from I through IV (1-4). The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV, means a more advanced cancer.

Other staging systems can also be used for kidney cancer. If your doctor uses a staging system other than the one mentioned above, ask to have it explained in terms you can understand.

Along with the stage of your cancer, your doctor will take other factors into account when recommending a treatment plan, including the grade of the cancer (how it looks under a microscope), blood test results, and your overall health.


Last Medical Review: 04/29/2014
Last Revised: 04/29/2014