Pancreatic cancer staging and prognosis

Your pancreatic cancer test results will help your doctors assign a stage to describe how far the cancer has spread. 

The most common staging system used for pancreatic cancer is called the TNM system. In this system, letters are assigned numbers to describe the cancer.

Your doctor may also just use numbers to describe the stage

Ask your doctor to explain the stage in a way that will help you understand the best treatment options for your situation.

Learn more about:

Staging pancreatic cancer

TNM system

  • T (Tumour) 1–4  Refers to 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 that the cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes; increasing node involvement is 1, 2 or 3.
  • M (Metastasis) 0–1 − Cancer has either spread (metastatised) to other organs e.g. the liver (1) or it hasn’t (0).


  • Stage 1 − Cancer is found only in the pancreas. This is sometimes called early-stage disease.
  • Stage 2 − Cancer has either spread to lymph nodes or structures near the pancreas (such as the small bowel or common bile duct), or is large but has not spread to neighbouring organs.
  • Stage 3 − Cancer has grown into nearby major arteries. There may or may not be cancer in the lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4 − The cancer has spread to other organs, such as the liver, lungs or lining of the abdomen.


Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You will need to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is impossible for any doctor to predict the exact course of your disease.

Test results; the type, stage and location of the cancer; and other factors such as your age, fitness and medical history are all important when working out your prognosis.

As symptoms can be vague or go unnoticed, pancreatic cancers – especially exocrine tumours – are often not found until they are advanced. Cancer that is locally advanced or metastatic (i.e. has spread to nearby organs) is difficult to treat successfully.

If the cancer is detected at an early stage and can be surgically removed, the prognosis may be better, especially in the case of pancreatic NETs. If cancer is advanced, surgery and other treatments may relieve symptoms and help improve quality of life.

This information was last reviewed in February 2016.
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