Colorectal Cancer Stages

After someone is diagnosed with colorectal cancer, doctors will try to figure out if it has spread, and if so, how far. This process is called staging. The stage of a cancer describes how much cancer is in the body. It helps determine how serious the cancer is and how best to treat it. Doctors also use a cancer's stage when talking about survival statistics.

The earliest stage colorectal cancers are called stage 0 (a very early cancer), and then range from stages I (1) through IV (4). As a rule, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV, means cancer has spread more. And within a stage, an earlier letter means a lower stage. Although each person’s cancer experience is unique, cancers with similar stages tend to have a similar outlook and are often treated in much the same way.

How is the stage determined?

The staging system most often used for colorectal cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system, which is based on 3 key pieces of information:

  • The extent (size) of the tumor (T): How far has the cancer grown into the wall of the colon or rectum? These layers, from the inner to the outer, include:
    • The inner lining (mucosa), which is the layer in which nearly all colorectal cancers start. This includes a thin muscle layer (muscularis mucosa).
    • The fibrous tissue beneath this muscle layer (submucosa)
    • A thick muscle layer (muscularis propria)
    • The thin, outermost layers of connective tissue (subserosa and serosa) that cover most of the colon but not the rectum

illustration showing a cross section of a normal intestinal tract with a window detailing the layers of the colon wall (including the mucosa (epithelium, connective tissue, thin muscle layer), submucosa, thick muscle layers, subserosa and serosa)

  • The spread to nearby lymph nodes (N): Has the cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes?
  • The spread (metastasis) to distant sites (M): Has the cancer spread to distant lymph nodes or distant organs such as the liver or lungs?

The system described below is the most recent AJCC system effective January 2018. It uses the pathologic stage (also called the surgical stage) which is determined by examining tissue removed during an operation. This is also known as surgical staging. This is likely to be more accurate than clinical staging, which takes into account the results of a physical exam, biopsies, and imaging tests, done before surgery.

Numbers or letters after T, N, and M provide more details about each of these factors. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced. Once a person’s T, N, and M categories have been determined, this information is combined in a process called stage grouping to assign an overall stage. For more information see Cancer Staging.

Cancer staging can be complex, so ask your doctor to explain it to you in a way you understand.

AJCC Stage

Stage grouping

Stage description*

0

Tis

N0

M0

The cancer is in its earliest stage. This stage is also known as carcinoma in situ or intramucosal carcinoma (Tis). It has not grown beyond the inner layer (mucosa) of the colon or rectum.

I

T1 or T2

N0

M0

The cancer has grown through the muscularis mucosa into the submucosa (T1), and it may also have grown into the muscularis propria (T2). It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IIA

T3

N0

M0

The cancer has grown into the outermost layers of the colon or rectum but has not gone through them (T3). It has not reached nearby organs. It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IIB

T4a

N0

M0

The cancer has grown through the wall of the colon or rectum but has not grown into other nearby tissues or organs (T4a). It has not yet spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IIC

T4b

N0

M0

The cancer has grown through the wall of the colon or rectum and is attached to or has grown into other nearby tissues or organs (T4b). It has not yet spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

 

 

 

 

IIIA

 

T1 or T2

N1/N1c

M0

The cancer has grown through the mucosa into the submucosa (T1), and it may also have grown into the muscularis propria (T2). It has spread to 1 to 3 nearby lymph nodes (N1) or into areas of fat near the lymph nodes but not the nodes themselves (N1c). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

OR

T1

N2a

M0

The cancer has grown through the mucosa into the submucosa (T1). It has spread to 4 to 6 nearby lymph nodes (N2a). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IIIB

 

T3 or T4a, N1/N1c

M0

The cancer has grown into the outermost layers of the colon or rectum (T3) or through the visceral peritoneum (T4a) but has not reached nearby organs. It has spread to 1 to 3 nearby lymph nodes (N1a or N1b) or into areas of fat near the lymph nodes but not the nodes themselves (N1c). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

OR

T2 or T3

N2a

M0

The cancer has grown into the muscularis propria (T2) or into the outermost layers of the colon or rectum (T3). It has spread to 4 to 6 nearby lymph nodes (N2a). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

OR

T1 or T2 N2b

M0

The cancer has grown through the mucosa into the submucosa (T1), and it may also have grown into the muscularis propria (T2). It has spread to 7 or more nearby lymph nodes (N2b). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

 

 

 

 

 

 

IIIC

 

T4a

N2a

M0

The cancer has grown through the wall of the colon or rectum (including the visceral peritoneum) but has not reached nearby organs (T4a). It has spread to 4 to 6 nearby lymph nodes (N2a). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

OR

T3 or T4a

N2b

M0

The cancer has grown into the outermost layers of the colon or rectum (T3) or through the visceral peritoneum (T4a) but has not reached nearby organs. It has spread to 7 or more nearby lymph nodes (N2b). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

OR

T4b

N1 or N2

M0

The cancer has grown through the wall of the colon or rectum and is attached to or has grown into other nearby tissues or organs (T4b). It has spread to at least one nearby lymph node or into areas of fat near the lymph nodes (N1 or N2). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

IVA

Any T

Any N

M1a

The cancer may or may not have grown through the wall of the colon or rectum (Any T). It might or might not have spread to nearby lymph nodes. (Any N). It has spread to 1 distant organ (such as the liver or lung) or distant set of lymph nodes, but not to distant parts of the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity) (M1a).

IVB

Any T

Any N

M1b

The cancer might or might not have grown through the wall of the colon or rectum (Any T). It might or might not have spread to nearby lymph nodes (Any N). It has spread to more than 1 distant organ (such as the liver or lung) or distant set of lymph nodes, but not to distant parts of the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity) (M1b).

IVC

Any T

Any N

M1c

The cancer might or might not have grown through the wall of the colon or rectum (Any T). It might or might not have spread to nearby lymph nodes (Any N). It has spread to distant parts of the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity), and may or may not have spread to distant organs or lymph nodes (M1c).

* The following additional categories are not listed in the table above:

  • TX: Main tumor cannot be assessed due to lack of information.
  • T0: No evidence of a primary tumor.
  • NX: Regional lymph nodes cannot be assessed due to lack of information.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: December 11, 2017 Last Revised: December 11, 2017

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