Pancreatic Cancer Stages

After someone is diagnosed with pancreatic 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 pancreas cancers are stage 0 (carcinoma in situ), 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 a more advanced cancer. 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 used most often for pancreatic cancer is the AJCC (American Joint Committee on Cancer) TNM system, which is based on 3 key pieces of information:

  • The extent of the tumor (T): How large is the tumor and has it grown outside the pancreas into nearby blood vessels?
  • The spread to nearby lymph nodes (N): Has the cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes? If so, how many of the lymph nodes have cancer?
  • The spread (metastasized) to distant sites (M): Has the cancer spread to distant lymph nodes or distant organs such as the liver, peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity), lungs or bones?

The system described below is the most recent AJCC system, effective January 2018. It is used to stage most pancreatic cancers except for well-differentiated pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), which have their own staging system.  

The staging system in the table uses the pathologic stage. It is determined by examining tissue removed during an operation. This is also known as the surgical stage. Sometimes, if the doctor's physical exam, imaging, or other tests show the tumor is too large or has spread to nearby organs and cannot be removed by surgery right away or at all, radiation or chemotherapy might be given first. In this case, the cancer will have a clinical stage. It is based on the results of physical exam, biopsy, and imaging tests (see Tests for Pancreatic Cancer). The clinical stage can be used to help plan treatment. Sometimes, though, the cancer has spread further than the clinical stage estimates, and may not predict the patient’s outlook as accurately as a pathologic stage. For more information, see Cancer Staging.

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.

Cancer staging can be complex. If you have any questions about your stage, please ask your doctor to explain it to you in a way you understand. (Additional information of the TNM system also follows the stage table below.) 

Stages of pancreatic cancer

AJCC Stage

Stage grouping

Stage description*

0

Tis

N0

M0

The cancer is confined to the top layers of pancreatic duct cells and has not invaded deeper tissues. It has not spread outside of the pancreas. These tumors are sometimes referred to as carcinoma in situ (Tis).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IA

T1

N0

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is no bigger than 2 cm (0.8 inch) across (T1).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IB

T2

N0

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is larger than 2 cm (0.8 inch) but no more than 4cm (1.6 inches) across (T2).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IIA

T3

N0

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is bigger than 4 cm (1.6 inches) across (T3).

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

 

IIB

 

T1

N1

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is no bigger than 2 cm (0.8 inch) across (T1) AND it has spread to no more than 3 nearby lymph nodes (N1).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

T2

N1

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is larger than 2 cm (0.8 inch) but no more than 4cm (1.6 inches) across (T2) AND it has spread to no more than 3 nearby lymph nodes (N1).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

T3

N1

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is bigger than 4 cm (1.6 inches) across (T3) AND it has spread to no more than 3 nearby lymph nodes (N1).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

III

T1

N2

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is no bigger than 2 cm (0.8 inch) across (T1) AND it has spread to 4 or more nearby lymph nodes (N2).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

OR

T2

N2

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is larger than 2 cm (0.8 inch) but no more than 4cm (1.6 inches) across (T2) AND it has spread to 4 or more nearby lymph nodes (N2).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

OR

T3

N2

M0

The cancer is confined to the pancreas and is bigger than 4 cm (1.6 inches) across (T3) AND it has spread to 4 or more nearby lymph nodes (N2).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

OR

T4

Any N

M0

The cancer is growing outside the pancreas and into nearby major blood vessels (T4). The cancer may or may not have spread to nearby lymph nodes (Any N).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

IV

Any T

Any N

M1

The cancer has spread to distant sites such as the liver, peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity), lungs or bones (M1). It can be any size (Any T) and might or might not have spread to nearby lymph nodes (Any N).

* The following additional categories are not listed on 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. 

Other prognostic factors

Although not formally part of the TNM system, other factors are also important in determining a person’s prognosis (outlook).

Tumor grade

The grade describes how closely the cancer looks like normal tissue under a microscope.

  • Grade 1 (G1) means the cancer looks much like normal pancreas tissue.
  • Grade 3 (G3) means the cancer looks very abnormal.
  • Grade 2 (G2) falls somewhere in between.

Low-grade cancers (G1) tend to grow and spread more slowly than high-grade (G3) cancers. Most of the time, Grade 3 pancreas cancers tend to have a poor prognosis (outlook) compared to Grade 1 or 2 cancers. 

Extent of resection

For patients who have surgery, another important factor is the extent of the resection — whether or not all of the tumor is removed:

  • R0: All of the cancer is thought to have been removed. (There are no visible or microscopic signs suggesting that cancer was left behind.)
  • R1: All visible tumor was removed, but lab tests of the removed tissue show that some small areas of cancer were probably left behind.
  • R2: Some visible tumor could not be removed.

Resectable versus unresectable pancreatic cancer

The AJCC staging system gives a detailed summary of how far the cancer has spread. But for treatment purposes, doctors use a simpler staging system, which divides cancers into groups based on whether or not they can be removed (resected) with surgery:

  • Resectable
  • Borderline resectable
  • Unresectable (either locally advanced or metastatic)

Resectable

If the cancer is only in the pancreas (or has spread just beyond it) and the surgeon believes the entire tumor can be removed, it is called resectable. (In general, this would include most stage IA, IB, and IIA cancers in the TNM system.)

It’s important to note that some cancers might appear to be resectable based on imaging tests, but once surgery is started it might become clear that not all of the cancer can be removed. If this happens, only some of the cancer may be removed to confirm the diagnosis (if a biopsy hasn’t been done already), and the rest of the planned operation will be stopped to help avoid the risk of major side effects.

Borderline resectable

This term is used to describe some cancers that might have just reached nearby blood vessels, but which the doctors feel might still be removed completely with surgery.

Unresectable

These cancers can’t be removed entirely by surgery.

Locally advanced: If the cancer has not yet spread to distant organs but it still can’t be removed completely with surgery, it is called locally advanced. Often the reason the cancer can’t be removed is because it has grown into or surrounded nearby major blood vessels. (This would include some stage III cancers in the TNM system.)

Surgery to try to remove these tumors would be very unlikely to be helpful and could still have major side effects. Some type of surgery might still be done, but it would be a less extensive operation with the goal of preventing or relieving symptoms or problems like a blocked bile duct or intestinal tract, instead of trying to cure the cancer.

Metastatic: If the cancer has spread to distant organs, it is called metastatic (Stage IV). These cancers can’t be removed completely. Surgery might still be done, but the goal would be to prevent or relieve symptoms, not to try to cure the cancer.

Tumor markers (CA 19-9)

Tumor markers are substances that can sometimes be found in the blood when a person has cancer. CA 19-9 is a tumor marker that may be helpful in pancreatic cancer. A drop in the CA 19-9 level after surgery (compared to the level before surgery) and low levels of CA 19-9 after pancreas surgery tend to predict a better prognosis (outlook).

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.

American Joint Committee on Cancer. Exocrine Pancreas. In: AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. 8th ed. New York, NY: Springer; 2017:337.

Last Medical Review: December 18, 2017 Last Revised: December 18, 2017

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