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Cancer – Terminology

December 8, 2020


When you receive a diagnosis of cancer, the terminology can be very confusing. Doctors use terms like grade and stage to try and understand how aggressive a cancer is and where it’s located. Those two terms can be a source of confusion. So let’s look at them separately. The grade of a cancer means that the pathologist zooms in on a specimen under the microscope and looks at the individual cancer cells, a pathologist can tell how aggressive the cancer looks under the microscope. This says nothing about how much cancer there is or where it’s located, but there are scales to rate how aggressive a cancer looks under the microscope, which might then translate into the likelihood of spread and how difficult it might be to cure. Stage is a different story. Stage describes how much cancer there is and where it’s located. All cancers are divided into stages.

One, two, three, and four. And while this is different for all different cancer types, there are some recurring themes. Stage one is a tiny amount of cancer still confined to the organ where it started. Stage two is a little bit more substantial amount of cancer still contained in the organ of origin. In stage three, it starts to bulge. It may be slightly extending out of the original location where it started, but it hasn’t spread far away. Stage four is metastasis or spread far away from the organ where it started. There’s many variations and the nuances differ from cancer to cancer, but the overall underlying themes of stage remain the same.

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