Lung Cancer (non-small cell) Overview

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Staging for non-small cell lung cancer

The stage of a cancer describes how far it has spread. This is very important because your treatment and the outlook for your recovery depend largely on the stage of your cancer.

The exams and tests described in the section “How is non-small cell lung cancer found?” are also used to stage lung cancer.

There are really 2 types of staging.

  • The clinical stage of the cancer is based on the results of the physical exam, biopsies, and tests like CT scans, chest x-rays, and PET scans.
  • If you have surgery, your doctor can also assign a pathologic stage. It is based on the same factors as the clinical stage plus what is found as a result of the surgery.

In some cases, the clinical and pathologic stages may be different. For instance, during surgery the doctor may find cancer in a place that did not show up on the tests, which might give the cancer a more advanced pathologic stage.

Because most patients with lung cancer do not have surgery, the clinical stage is used most often.

Staging of non-small cell lung cancer

The system used to stage non-small cell lung cancer is the AJCC (American Joint Committee on Cancer) system. It is based on 3 key pieces of information:

  • The size of the main tumor and whether it has grown into nearby areas
  • Whether the cancer has reached nearby lymph nodes
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body

Stages are described using Roman numerals from 0 to IV (0 to 4). Some stages are further divided into A and B. As a rule, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV (4), means a more advanced cancer.

After looking at your test results, the doctor will tell you the stage of your cancer. Be sure to ask your doctor to explain your stage in a way you understand. This will help you both decide on the best treatment for you.

For more details the staging of lung cancer, see “How is non-small cell lung cancer staged?” in our detailed guide, Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell).


Last Medical Review: 09/05/2013
Last Revised: 02/11/2014