Staging and prognosis for breast cancer

Once you have had tests that show you have breast cancer, your doctor will work out the stage and grade of the cancer. The stage describes how far the cancer has spread, while the grade describes how active the cancer cells are and how fast the cancer is likely to be growing. Staging and grading help the doctor decide on the best treatment for you.

The expected outcome of your disease is called the prognosis, but it is only a prediction and some people do not find it helpful or even prefer not to know.

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Staging

For breast cancer, the stages are numbered I to IV.

Stages I and II are considered to be early breast cancer:

  • Stage I – The tumour is less than 2 cm in diameter and has not spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit.
  • Stage IIA – The tumour is less than 2 cm in diameter and has spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit OR the tumour is 2–5 cm in diameter and has not spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit.
  • Stage IIB – The tumour is 2–5 cm in diameter and has spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit.

Stage III is referred to as locally advanced breast cancer, and stage IV refers to advanced breast cancer. For information about stages III and IV, visit Breast Cancer Network of Australia or Cancer Australia, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.


Grading

Depending on the appearance of the cancer cells and how fast they are likely to be growing, the breast cancer will be graded as one of three stages:

  • Grade 1 (low grade) – Cancer cells look a little different from normal cells. They are usually slow growing.
  • Grade 2 (intermediate grade) – Cancer cells do not look like normal cells. They are growing faster than grade 1 breast cancer, but not as fast as grade 3.
  • Grade 3 (high grade) – Cancer cells look very different from normal cells. They are fast growing.

Prognosis

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis with your doctor, but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of the disease.

Survival rates for people with breast cancer have increased significantly over time due to better diagnostic tests and scans, earlier detection, and improvements in treatment methods. Most people with early breast cancer can be treated successfully.


This information was last reviewed in July 2016
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