A guide to the different stages of cancer

Friends and family with cancer diagnoses enter a world with its own language and time zones.

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  • | 6:11 a.m. August 20, 2015
  • Winter Park - Maitland Observer
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Friends and family with cancer diagnoses enter a world with its own language and time zones. It helps if you understanding some of it.

One reason it is so important to have the recommended cancer screening tests like mammograms, Pap tests, and colorectal cancer tests, is that cancer is most treatable in the early stages. Most cancers do not have symptoms in the early, treatable stages; screening tests are the best way to find them. To find out what cancer screening tests are recommended for your age and gender, go to www.cdc.gov/prevention.

Screening tests indicate that there may be a problem; usually further testing is needed to see if indeed cancer is present and how advanced it may be. A positive finding on a screening test is not cause for alarm; it is cause for further evaluation to find out what is going on.

If indeed it is cancer, the extent of the cancer may be classified into “stages.” What does it mean to have cancer, stage 1 or 2 or 3 or 4? The “stage” of cancer reflects three components: the size and speed of growth of the tumor, its presence or absence in the lymph nodes, and its spread (or not) to other parts of the body. Additionally, tumor markers and tumor gene testing, such as tests for estrogen receptors for breast cancer, provide more information on a cancer’s type and progress. Staging and additional tests help determine treatment options and possible prognosis.

Most cancers have four stages. Basically, the lower the stage number, the better the prognosis.

Stage 0 is cancer in situ, which means cancer in one place that has not invaded any nearby tissues. Sometimes Stage 0 cancers can be treated by removing the tumor.

Stage I means the cancer or tumor is small and has not grown deeply into nearby tissues and is not in the lymph nodes.

Stage II and III describe larger cancers or tumors that have grown into nearby tissues and the lymph nodes but have not spread to other parts of the body.

Stage IV cancers have spread to other parts of the body. This is also called advanced or metastatic cancer.

Staging is used for solid tumor cancers, like breast and lung cancers, and is tailored to each kind of cancer. Cancers of the blood system such as leukemia and childhood cancers use different staging criteria.

Treatment options are usually based not only on the stage of the cancer and cancer type, but also on the person’s health status and personal preferences. Those healthiest before getting a cancer diagnosis may be in better shape to endure the treatments and may have a better prognosis than someone at the same cancer stage but with other health problems. It is always best to be as healthy as you can be.

Other factors considered in cancer management include the grade of the cancer cells, which can indicate how quickly the cancer cells are likely to spread. In general, the more the cells look like healthy cells, the lower the probability of spread. The genes in cancer cells may also aid in predicting the course of the cancer. The role of genetics in cancer is developing so treatments can be personalized to each person’s genetics as well as other cancer factors.

As many people with cancer have documented in numerous blogs, bulletins, and books, everyone’s course of care is different. We do know that having the support and understanding of friends, families, and strangers makes it easier. Local support groups can be a big help. The American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) has great information, programs, and resources that can help, including help with transportation to appointments, support groups, and more. You can call the National Cancer Information Center to ask questions about cancer, treatment, financial assistance, and more at 1-800-227-2345.

Maitland resident Nancy Rudner Lugo is a nurse practitioner and president of Health Action, offering workplace health consulting and nurse coaching. Visit www.healthaction.biz