Lung Cancer Staging

Key Points

  • Lung cancer staging means finding out:
    • where the lung cancer cells are located
    • the size of the lung cancer tumor
    • if and where the lung cancer has spread
  • Lung cancer staging helps determine what treatment options you have
  • Staging gives some information about lung cancer prognosis, but does not predict how long you will live.

Take action

If you don’t already know your lung cancer stage, ask your doctor. Make sure you know what the actual numbers and letters mean and how it will influence your lung cancer treatment options.

In the Lung Cancer Basics section, we discussed the different types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Lung cancer staging is the next step in the lung cancer diagnosis process. Your team will use results from tests and tissue samples to determine  your lung cancer stage. Staging helps to decide what your recommended treatment plan may be.

Three factors are used to determine lung cancer stage (sometimes referred to as the TNM classification system). The stage of your lung cancer is determined by a combination of all of these factors.

  • T – tumor size and location
  • N – regional lymph node involvement. Lymph nodes are small ball-shaped organs of the immune system distributed all over the body. It is important to know if the lung cancer has spread to the lymph nodes around the lung when staging the cancer.
  • M – metastasis status. Metastasis status refers to which organs the cancer has spread.

Non-small cell lung cancer stages range from one to four. The lung cancer stages are usually expressed in roman numerals (I through IV). The lower the lung cancer stage, the less the cancer has spread. Small cell lung cancer is described using two stages: limited and extensive.

Lung cancer staging is also used to discuss the general outlook for your recovery and chance of cure. This is sometimes called a lung cancer prognosis. It is possible for doctors to estimate prognosis based on the experiences of other people with the same type and stage of cancer. Keep in mind that no one knows for sure how your cancer will respond to treatment. Every person is different.