Staging and prognosis for head and neck cancer

Staging head and neck cancers

The tests described in this section help show whether you have a head and neck cancer and whether it has spread. Working out how far the cancer has spread is called staging and it helps your health care team recommend the best treatment for you.

TNM system

In Australia, the TNM system is the method most commonly used for staging head and neck cancers. In this system, letters are assigned numbers to describe the cancer.

Based on the TNM numbers, the doctor then works out the cancer’s overall stage (I–IV). Stages I–II are considered early head and neck cancer, and stages III–IV are considered advanced.

Usually the earlier cancer is diagnosed, the better the outcome, but people with more advanced head and neck cancer may also respond well to treatment.

TNM system

T (Tumour) 1–4

Indicates the size of the primary tumour. The higher the number, the larger the cancer.

N (Nodes) 0–3

Shows if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. N0 means the cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes; the more nodes affected, the higher the number.

M (Metastasis) 0–1

Shows if the cancer has spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body. M0 means the cancer has not spread; M1 means the cancer has spread.


Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease.

You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of the disease. Instead, your doctor can give you an idea about the general prognosis for people with the same type and stage of cancer.

In most cases, the earlier head and neck cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances of successful treatment.

To work out your prognosis, your doctor will consider your test results; the type of head and neck cancer and rate of growth; how well you respond to treatment; and other factors such as your age, general fitness and medical history.

This information was last reviewed in May 2017
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