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The stage of a cancer describes how far it has spread.

Basal cell skin cancer is almost always cured before it spreads to other organs, so it is seldom staged unless the cancer is very large.

Squamous cell cancers have a higher (but still small) risk of spreading. Staging is sometimes done, especially for people who have a high risk of spread. This includes people who have had organ transplants and those with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The tests and exams described in the section “How are basal and squamous cell skin cancers found?” are the main ones used to help figure out the stage of the skin cancer. In rare cases, tests like x-rays, CT scans, or MRI scans may be used as well.

When these skin cancers are staged, most doctors use the TNM staging system. This system is based on 3 key pieces of information:

  • T stands for the main tumor (its size and how far it has grown into the skin or nearby structures).
  • N stands for spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • M is for metastasis (spread to distant organs).

These factors are combined to determine an overall stage, using the number 0 and the Roman numerals I through IV (1-4). The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV (4), means a more advanced cancer.

Be sure to ask your doctor to explain your stage in a way you understand. This will help you decide on the best treatment for you.

Last Medical Review: 05/06/2015
Last Revised: 02/01/2016