Now what? As if being diagnosed with breast cancer wasn’t overwhelming enough, now you have to make sense of the medical jargon spoken by your health care team, particularly by your doctor. Well, what exactly does it all mean? And perhaps more importantly, what does it all mean for you? How does the stage of your disease affect you? Read on to find out...
First of all, there are several systems that can be used for staging breast cancer. The stages described here are based on the system most commonly used: the TNM system established by the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC). The TNM system stages cancers based on three factors:
- The T factor – which stands for tumor size and whether it is contained within one area or not
- The N factor – which stands for node involvement (whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or not)
- The M factor – which stands for metastasis (whether the cancer has spread to other organs or not).
A number is used to describe each factor:
- T: numbers 0 to 4 are used to describe tumor size and spread within the breast. The higher the number means the bigger the tumor and/or the larger the spread to the skin or to the tissues surrounding the breast.
- N: numbers 0 to 3 are used to describe whether the lymph nodes near the breast (the ones in the armpit that is on the same side as the affected breast) are affected and, if they are, how many of them are affected. The higher the number means a larger number of lymph nodes are involved.
- M: numbers 0 and 1 are used to describe whether the cancer has spread to another organ (like the lungs) or to lymph nodes far from the breast. 0 means no spread, while 1 means positive mets.
Once these three factors are figured out, they are grouped together and a stage number is assigned to the disease. The letters A, B, or C may also be assigned after the stage number to give more details about the tumor, lymph nodes, and mets.
Prognosis and course of treatment are generally based on the stage of the cancer. This section describes all of the different stages of breast cancer and what it could mean for you.