Understanding Pancreatic Cancer: Stages

What “Stages” Mean

Once pancreatic cancer has been diagnosed, it’s important to know what stage of cancer you have. Knowing what stage your cancer is tells you how serious it is. The stage of pancreatic cancer depends on the size of the cancer, lymph node involvement and if there is any distal spread of the tumor. It helps your doctor plan the right course of treatment.

The TNM staging system is used for all types of cancer, not just pancreatic cancer. The letters TNM describe the tumor size and if the cancer has spread to other areas.

  • T: indicates the size of the tumor
  • N: number of lymph nodes with cancer cells in them
  • M: indicates metastasis, which means that cancer has spread to other body parts.

Stages are named using roman numerals. For pancreatic cancer, doctors use the following system:

Stage 0

Cancer is only in pancreatic cells. Also called in situ.

Stage IA

Cancer is only in the pancreas. The tumor is 2 cm or smaller.

Stage IB

Cancer is only in the pancreas. The tumor is larger than 2 cm.

Stage IIA

Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas, but lymph nodes, major blood vessels, and far away parts of the body are not affected.

Stage IIB

Cancer has spread to lymph nodes but not to major blood vessels or other parts of the body.

Stage III

Cancer has spread to major blood vessels and lymph nodes but not to other parts of the body.

Stage IV

Cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

In addition to knowing the stage of pancreatic cancer, it’s important to know the grade of the cancer. Grade refers to whether the cells look more or less normal under a microscope. Grade 1 (G1) cancers look the most like normal cells. Grade 4 (G4) cancers look the most abnormal.

Pancreatic cancer is hard to find early. This is because your pancreas is deep within your body. This means that doctors can’t see or feel tumors during a routine physical examination. By the time of symptoms, the cancer has usually spread. 

Next: I’ve received my diagnosis. What do I do now? What questions do I need to ask my doctor? 

Back to “Understanding Pancreatic Cancer: An Introduction”