Understanding The Different Stages Of Breast Cancer

Being diagnosed with breast cancer can cause a whirlwind of emotions in a person. And, before the reality of this diagnosis can settle in, doctors are, most likely, discussing all the possible treatment options.

Doing prior research and knowing what to expect as this cancer progresses can help ease some of the anxiety that you might be feeling. This is based on the size of the tumor of abnormal cells and how far these cells have gone from the place of origin. Here are the 5 different stages of breast cancer.

Stage 0

Cancer cells haven't grown in stage 0.

This stage can be divided into two, based on the invasiveness of the cancer cells.1 These categories are

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS): This is when abnormal cells have only been found in the lining of the breast milk duct or lobules and haven’t spread into the surrounding breast tissue. Hence, this form of early cancer is highly treatable but can spread if left untreated.
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS): This is generally not considered cancer despite having the word “carcinoma” in its name. In it, the cells in the lobules are abnormal but non-invasive. However, this might indicate that a woman is at a higher risk of breast cancer and need to come in for regular breast exams, mammograms, and hormone radiation therapy to prevent the cancer cells from growing.

Stage 1

The cancerous tumor is small in stage 1.

In this stage, the cancer is evident but is still contained in the place where the abnormal cells first originated. Based on the size of the tumor and the lymph nodes that have evidence of cancer, this stage can be divided into two, namely

  • 1A: In this stage, the tumor is smaller than a peanut, approximately and hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes.
  • 1B: In this stage, the lymph nodes have evidence of cancer (small clusters of cells between the approximate size of a pinprick to a grain of rice).

Since the abnormal cells haven’t spread too much, breast cancer is highly treatable at this stage as well.2

Stage 2

Cancer spreads to lymph nodes in stage 2.

In this stage, the cancer tumor has grown and continues to do so, albeit still within the breast or just as far as the lymph nodes. Based on the size of the tumor, this stage is also divided into two, namely

  •  2A: In this stage, there might not be any tumor. If there is one, then it is no bigger than 2–5 centimeters. Additionally, the abnormal cells have either not spread to the lymph nodes or limited themselves to less than 4 auxiliary lymph nodes.
  • 2B: In this stage, the tumor might be 2–5 centimeters big and the cells might have spread to 4 of the auxiliary lymph nodes. Alternatively, it could mean that the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters but hasn’t spread to any lymph nodes.

This stage calls for surgery and radiation therapy, often with chemo. And, although these treatment options are slightly more aggressive than those for stage 1, the cancer cells respond well to them.3

Stage 3

Cancer spreads to nearby muscles in stage 3.

In this stage, breast cancer has spread beyond the immediate region of the tumor and into the nearby lymph nodes and muscles. However, it hasn’t spread to any distant organs. Based on the tumor size and how far it has spread, this stage can be divided into three, namely

  • 3A: In this stage, the tumor might be of any size and as many as 9 lymph nodes could be affected. Alternatively, the tumor might be a little more than 5 centimeters big and the lymph nodes might have clusters of cancerous cells. Besides these two possibilities, the tumor could also be larger than 5 centimeters and the cells could have spread to a few lymph nodes under the arm or breastbone.
  • 3B: At this point, the cancerous tumor could be of any size and might even have spread to the chest wall or breast skin. You might also see certain evidence of swelling, inflammation, or ulcers.
  • 3C: Along with all the signs of stage 3B, cancer in 3C might have spread to over 10 lymph nodes. Alternatively, the lymph nodes extending to the collarbone, arm, or breastbone might have cancer.

This stage also involves the use of lumpectomy, mastectomy, and radiation for treatment of the cells at the point of origin along with hormone therapy or chemotherapy. Lumpectomy should have you up and running in about 1–2 weeks, while recovery from mastectomy might take slightly longer.4

Stage 3C might be called “inoperable,” but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be treated. It just means that a combination of treatments might be required to fully tackle the cancer cells.5

Stage 4

Cancer spreads to organs in stage 4.

At this point, cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body such as the brain, bones, lung, and liver. Treatment options for this stage include drug interventions and a combination of all of the available treatments, depending on the individual.

It’s important to remember that even though this stage is considered incurable, advances in technology have enabled women to live longer and fight breast cancer more successfully. Be sure to have a strong support system around this time.6

It is possible to get breast cancer even after you’ve been treated, either because there were a few cancer cells that went undetected and remained in the body, or because the disease spread before treatment began.7 However, it is important to remind yourself that irrespective of the stage you’re in, there is a good chance of recovery. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any concerns that you may have and keep in touch with your loved ones.