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Oral Cancer: Stages

What does the stage of cancer mean?

The stage of a cancer is how much and how far the cancer has spread in your body. Your healthcare provider uses exams and tests to find out the size of the cancer and where it is. He or she can also see if the cancer has grown into nearby areas, and if it has spread to other parts of your body. The stage of a cancer is one of the most important things to know when deciding how to treat the cancer.

Stages of oral cancer

The stage of your cancer describes the size of a tumor, and how much it has spread. Doctors use different rating systems to stage cancer. The system used most often for breast cancer is the TNM system:

  • T stands for tumor. This category notes the size of the tumor and if it has spread into nearby areas.

  • N stands for nodes. Lymph nodes are small organs around the body. They help the body fight infections. This category notes if cancer cells have spread to the nearby lymph nodes.

  • M stands for metastasis. This category notes if the cancer has spread to other organs in the body. This may include a lung, your bones, liver, or brain. It also includes lymph nodes that are not near your kidneys.

Numbers from 0 to 4 are then assigned to the T, N, and M categories. This information is then put together into what’s called stage grouping. The stage grouping is used to determine your overall stage. In some cases the letter X is assigned instead of a number from 0 to 4. This means that the T, N, or M can’t be determined.

 The stages of oral cancer

The stages of oral cancer are: 

  • Stage 0. The cancer is only in the layer of cells lining your oral cavity or oropharynx. The cancer is very tiny. It has not spread or gone deeper. Cancer at this stage is also called carcinoma in situ. The terms Tis, N0, or M0 may be used to describe a stage 0 tumor. 

  • Stage I. There is cancer in your mouth, but it is 2 centimeters (cm) (about .75 inch) or less in size. The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes or to other places in your body. The terms T1, N0, and M0 may be used to describe a stage I tumor. 

  • Stage II. The cancer is between 2 and 4 cm (about 1.5 inches) in size. The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes or other places in your body. The terms T2, N0, and M0 may be used to describe a stage II tumor. 

  • Stage III. The tumor is larger than 4 cm (about 2 inches). It has not spread to the lymph nodes or to other places in your body. Or the cancer is any size and has spread to one nearby lymph node, which is 3 cm or less across. It has not spread to other places in your body. These terms in sets of 3 may be used to describe a stage III tumor: T3, N0, M0; T1, N1, M0; T2, N1, M0; or T3, N1, M0. 

  • Stage IV. The tumor can be any size. The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of your body. This stage of cancer may be described with any T number (1 to 4), any N number (0 to 3), and either M0 or M1.

  • Recurrent. This is cancer that has come back after it was treated. When cancer occurs again, the staging process is also begun again. You'll probably have tests similar to those you had the first time to determine the current stage of the cancer.

Talking with your healthcare provider

Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Make sure to ask any questions or talk about your concerns. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Last Review Date: 10/19/2015
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.