Disease Information

Head & Neck Cancer Staging

Staging Head & Neck Cancer

If you have either head cancer or neck cancer, your cancer specialist will want to learn the stage (or extent) of the disease. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and if so, to which parts of the body. Staging typically involves an examination under anesthesia, laboratory tests, and x-rays or other imagining procedures.  

The American Joint Committee on Cancer developed the TNM (tumor, node, metastasis) classification system, which is the most commonly used staging system by medical professionals around the world. It evaluates three key factors of head and neck cancers:

  • Tumor (T): the size and primary location of the tumor
  • Node (N): if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
  • Metastasis (M): whether the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other areas of the body

Your cancer can be stage 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4. The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, like stage 4, means a more serious cancer that has spread from where it started to other parts of the body.

Knowing the stage of your cancer also allows your oncologist to make a treatment recommendation that is specific to your situation. Your cancer care team at Virginia Oncology Associates (VOA) will thoroughly review your medical history, family history, and other factors to develop an individualized cancer treatment plan for you.

Questions to ask the doctor:

  • Do you know the stage of the cancer?
  • If not, how and when will you find out the stage of the cancer?
  • Would you explain to me what the stage means in my case?
  • What will happen next?
  • How quickly do I need to start treatment?

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