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Stages of Breast Cancer

After breast cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out whether the cancer has spread within the breast or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The results of some of the tests used to diagnose breast cancer are also used to stage the disease. (See the General Information section.)

The following tests and procedures also may be used in the staging process:

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy: The removal of the sentinel lymph node during surgery. The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node in a group of lymph nodes to receive lymphatic drainage from the primary tumor. It is the first lymph node the cancer is likely to spread to from the primary tumor. A radioactive substance and/or blue dye is injected near the tumor. The substance or dye flows through the lymph ducts to the lymph nodes. The first lymph node to receive the substance or dye is removed. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are not found, it may not be necessary to remove more lymph nodes. Sometimes, a sentinel lymph node is found in more than one group of nodes.
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones with cancer and is detected by a scanner.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

In breast cancer, stage is based on the size and location of the primary tumor, the spread of cancer to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body, tumor grade, and whether certain biomarkers are present.

To plan the best treatment and understand your prognosis, it is important to know the breast cancer stage.

There are 3 types of breast cancer stage groups:

  • Clinical Prognostic Stage is used first to assign a stage for all patients based on health history, physical exam, imaging tests (if done), and biopsies. The Clinical Prognostic Stage is described by the TNM system, tumor grade, and biomarker status (ER, PR, HER2). In clinical staging, mammography or ultrasound is used to check the lymph nodes for signs of cancer.
  • Pathological Prognostic Stage is then used for patients who have surgery as their first treatment. The Pathological Prognostic Stage is based on all clinical information, biomarker status, and laboratory test results from breast tissue and lymph nodes removed during surgery.
  • Anatomic Stage is based on the size and the spread of cancer as described by the TNM system. The Anatomic Stage is used in parts of the world where biomarker testing is not available. It is not used in the United States.

The TNM system is used to describe the size of the primary tumor and the spread of cancer to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

For breast cancer, the TNM system describes the tumor as follows:

Tumor (T). The size and location of the tumor.

  • TX: Primary tumor cannot be assessed.
  • T0: No sign of a primary tumor in the breast.
  • Tis: Carcinoma in situ. There are 2 types of breast carcinoma in situ:
    • Tis (DCIS): DCIS is a condition in which abnormal cells are found in the lining of a breast duct. The abnormal cells have not spread outside the duct to other tissues in the breast. In some cases, DCIS may become invasive breast cancer that is able to spread to other tissues. At this time, there is no way to know which lesions can become invasive.
    • Tis (Paget disease): Paget disease of the nipple is a condition in which abnormal cells are found only in the skin cells of the nipple. It is not staged according to the TNM system. If Paget disease AND an invasive breast cancer are present, the TNM system is used to stage the invasive breast cancer.
  • T1: The tumor is 20 millimeters or smaller. There are 4 subtypes of a T1 tumor depending on the size of the tumor:
    • T1mi: the tumor is 1 millimeter or smaller.
    • T1a: the tumor is larger than 1 millimeter but not larger than 5 millimeters.
    • T1b: the tumor is larger than 5 millimeters but not larger than 10 millimeters.
    • T1c: the tumor is larger than 10 millimeters but not larger than 20 millimeters.
  • T2: The tumor is larger than 20 millimeters but not larger than 50 millimeters.
  • T3: The tumor is larger than 50 millimeters.
  • T4: The tumor is described as one of the following:
    • T4a: the tumor has grown into the chest wall.
    • T4b: the tumor has grown into the skin—an ulcer has formed on the surface of the skin on the breast, small tumor nodules have formed in the same breast as the primary tumor, and/or there is swelling of the skin on the breast.
    • T4c: the tumor has grown into the chest wall and the skin.
    • T4d: inflammatory breast cancer—one-third or more of the skin on the breast is red and swollen (also called peau d’orange).

Lymph Node (N). The size and location of lymph nodes where cancer has spread.

When the lymph nodes are removed by surgery and studied under a microscope by a pathologist, pathologic staging is used to describe the lymph nodes. The pathologic staging of lymph nodes is described below.

  • NX: The lymph nodes cannot be assessed.
  • N0: No sign of cancer in the lymph nodes, or tiny clusters of cancer cells not larger than 0.2 millimeters in the lymph nodes.
  • N1: Cancer is described as one of the following:
    • N1mi: cancer has spread to the axillary (armpit area) lymph nodes and is larger than 0.2 millimeters but not larger than 2 millimeters.
    • N1a: cancer has spread to 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes and the cancer in at least one of the lymph nodes is larger than 2 millimeters.
    • N1b: cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the breastbone on the same side of the body as the primary tumor, and the cancer is larger than 0.2 millimeters and is found by sentinel lymph node biopsy. Cancer is not found in the axillary lymph nodes.
    • N1c: cancer has spread to 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes and the cancer in at least one of the lymph nodes is larger than 2 millimeters. Cancer is also found by sentinel lymph node biopsy in the lymph nodes near the breastbone on the same side of the body as the primary tumor.
  • N2: Cancer is described as one of the following:
    • N2a: cancer has spread to 4 to 9 axillary lymph nodes and the cancer in at least one of the lymph nodes is larger than 2 millimeters.
    • N2b: cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the breastbone and the cancer is found by imaging tests. Cancer is not found in the axillary lymph nodes by sentinel lymph node biopsy or lymph node dissection.
  • N3: Cancer is described as one of the following:
    • N3a: cancer has spread to 10 or more axillary lymph nodes and the cancer in at least one of the lymph nodes is larger than 2 millimeters, or cancer has spread to lymph nodes below the collarbone.
    • N3b: cancer has spread to 1 to 9 axillary lymph nodes and the cancer in at least one of the lymph nodes is larger than 2 millimeters. Cancer has also spread to lymph nodes near the breastbone and the cancer is found by imaging tests;

      or

      cancer has spread to 4 to 9 axillary lymph nodes and cancer in at least one of the lymph nodes is larger than 2 millimeters. Cancer has also spread to lymph nodes near the breastbone on the same side of the body as the primary tumor, and the cancer is larger than 0.2 millimeters and is found by sentinel lymph node biopsy.

    • N3c: cancer has spread to lymph nodes above the collarbone on the same side of the body as the primary tumor.

When the lymph nodes are checked using mammography or ultrasound, it is called clinical staging. The clinical staging of lymph nodes is not described here.

Metastasis (M). The spread of cancer to other parts of the body.

  • M0: There is no sign that cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
  • M1: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver, or brain. If cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes, the cancer in the lymph nodes is larger than 0.2 millimeters.

The grading system is used to describe how quickly a breast tumor is likely to grow and spread.

The grading system describes a tumor based on how abnormal the cancer cells and tissue look under a microscope and how quickly the cancer cells are likely to grow and spread. Low-grade cancer cells look more like normal cells and tend to grow and spread more slowly than high-grade cancer cells. To describe how abnormal the cancer cells and tissue are, the pathologist will assess the following three features:

  • How much of the tumor tissue has normal breast ducts.
  • The size and shape of the nuclei in the tumor cells.
  • How many dividing cells are present, which is a measure of how fast the tumor cells are growing and dividing.

For each feature, the pathologist assigns a score of 1 to 3; a score of “1” means the cells and tumor tissue look the most like normal cells and tissue, and a score of “3” means the cells and tissue look the most abnormal. The scores for each feature are added together to get a total score between 3 and 9.

Three grades are possible:

  • Total score of 3 to 5: G1 (Low grade or well differentiated).
  • Total score of 6 to 7: G2 (Intermediate grade or moderately differentiated).
  • Total score of 8 to 9: G3 (High grade or poorly differentiated).

Biomarker testing is used to find out whether breast cancer cells have certain receptors.

Healthy breast cells, and some breast cancer cells, have receptors (biomarkers) that attach to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are needed for healthy cells, and some breast cancer cells, to grow and divide. To check for these biomarkers, samples of tissue containing breast cancer cells are removed during a biopsy or surgery. The samples are tested in a laboratory to see whether the breast cancer cells have estrogen or progesterone receptors.

Another type of receptor (biomarker) that is found on the surface of all breast cancer cells is called HER2. HER2 receptors are needed for the breast cancer cells to grow and divide.

For breast cancer, biomarker testing includes the following:

  • Estrogen receptor (ER). If the breast cancer cells have estrogen receptors, the cancer cells are called ER positive (ER+). If the breast cancer cells do not have estrogen receptors, the cancer cells are called ER negative (ER-).
  • Progesterone receptor (PR). If the breast cancer cells have progesterone receptors, the cancer cells are called PR positive (PR+). If the breast cancer cells do not have progesterone receptors, the cancer cells are called PR negative (PR-).
  • Human epidermal growth factor type 2 receptor (HER2/neu or HER2). If the breast cancer cells have larger than normal amounts of HER2 receptors on their surface, the cancer cells are called HER2 positive (HER2+). If the breast cancers cells have a normal amount of HER2 on their surface, the cancer cells are called HER2 negative (HER2-). HER2+ breast cancer is more likely to grow and divide faster than HER2- breast cancer.

Sometimes the breast cancer cells will be described as triple negative or triple positive.

  • Triple negative. If the breast cancer cells do not have estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, or a larger than normal amount of HER2 receptors, the cancer cells are called triple negative.
  • Triple positive. If the breast cancer cells do have estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and a larger than normal amount of HER2 receptors, the cancer cells are called triple positive.

It is important to know the estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, and HER2 receptor status to choose the best treatment. There are drugs that can stop the receptors from attaching to the hormones estrogen and progesterone and stop the cancer from growing. Other drugs may be used to block the HER2 receptors on the surface of the breast cancer cells and stop the cancer from growing.

The TNM system, the grading system, and biomarker status are combined to find out the breast cancer stage.

Here are 3 examples that combine the TNM system, the grading system, and the biomarker status to find out the Pathological Prognostic breast cancer stage for a woman whose first treatment was surgery:

If the tumor size is 30 millimeters (T2), has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0), has not spread to distant parts of the body (M0), and is:

  • Grade 1
  • HER2+
  • ER-
  • PR-

The cancer is stage IIA.

If the tumor size is 53 millimeters (T3), has spread to 4 to 9 axillary lymph nodes (N2), has not spread to other parts of the body (M0), and is:

  • Grade 2
  • HER2+
  • ER+
  • PR-

The tumor is stage IIIA.

If the tumor size is 65 millimeters (T3), has spread to 3 axillary lymph nodes (N1a), has spread to the lungs (M1), and is:

  • Grade 1
  • HER2+
  • ER-
  • PR-

The cancer is stage IV.

Talk to your doctor to find out what your breast cancer stage is and how it is used to plan the best treatment for you.

After surgery, your doctor will receive a pathology report that describes the size and location of the primary tumor, the spread of cancer to nearby lymph nodes, tumor grade, and whether certain biomarkers are present. The pathology report and other test results are used to determine your breast cancer stage.

You are likely to have many questions. Ask your doctor to explain how staging is used to decide the best options to treat your cancer and whether there are clinical trials that might be right for you.

The treatment of breast cancer depends partly on the stage of the disease.

For ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) treatment options, see Ductal Carcinoma in Situ.

For treatment options for stage I, stage II, stage IIIA, and operable stage IIIC breast cancer, see Early, Localized, or Operable Breast Cancer.

For treatment options for stage IIIB, inoperable stage IIIC, and inflammatory breast cancer, see Locally Advanced or Inflammatory Breast Cancer.

For treatment options for cancer that has recurred near the area where it first formed, see Locoregional Recurrent Breast Cancer.

For treatment options for stage IV breast cancer or breast cancer that has recurred in other parts of the body, see Metastatic Breast Cancer.

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Navigating Care disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information. This information was sourced and adapted from Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries on www.cancer.gov.

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