When a person is given a cancer diagnosis, his hope is that the cancer tissues are found early enough to be eradicated successfully through treatment. Cancer is divided into a number of stages that describe the severity of the cancer based on a variety of staging systems. To describe most cancers, the Tumor, Node, Metastasis (TNM) staging system is used. This system describes the extent of the cancer’s reach for solid tumors based on the size and extension of the primary tumor (T); its lymphatic involvement (N); and the presence of metastases (M), or the spread of the cancer from one part of the body to another. Cancers are also staged using Roman Numeral Staging, a method that describes the cancer more broadly and is easier to understand.
Stage 0 of the Roman Numeral Staging system describes the carcinoma in situ. This form of cancer is defined by the absence of invasion of tumor cells. The cell that is cancerous does so in the company of similar cells and produces a lump or tumor in that tissue without posing a threat to other areas. Carcinoma (a cancer that begins in a tissue that lines the inner or outer surfaces of the body) that stays in place and does not spread is referred to as “in situ,” Latin for “in its place.” Most doctors describe a CIS (carcinoma in situ) as “pre-cancer” since the tumor tissue is stagnant. For this reason, only four primary stages of cancer are commonly recognized:
Stage I cancers are confined to one part of the body. At this level, the cancer can be surgically removed without affecting other areas of the body. For this reason, early detection is crucial to beating cancer long-term.
Stage II cancers are cancers that have started to march toward new territory within a region of the body. The cancer can be surgically removed at this point, but needs additional treatment like chemotherapy and radiation.
Stage III cancer has progressed even further. The specific criteria necessary to cross from stage II to Stage III depends on the type of cancer. From here on out, radiation, chemo, and surgery are mandatory.
Finally, Stage IV cancers have metastasized, or spread to other major organs in the body. At this point in time, the cancer is treated with chemo, radiation, and surgery but is very difficult to completely remove and the patient is likely to experience relapse. Chances of survival are significantly reduced when the cancer is detected in these later stages.
Patients who undergo surgery to remove cancerous tissues sometimes give consent for those tissues to be preserved and archived at a biobank facility. Cancer tissues become FFPE tissue, or formalin-fixed paraffin embedded tissue. This is a method of preservation so they can later be cut into slices just microns thick to be placed on slides and then dyed. Someone with a rare cancer can consent to his cancer tissues being preserved and used for research to one day arrive at a cure or better method of treatment. Regardless of the scope of treatments that become available in the future, early detection is the key to a high quality of life post-cancer diagnosis.