Understanding breast cancer stages
Breast cancer can be categorised into different stages depending on when it is diagnosed to help determine the appropriate treatment plan.1
Breast cancer stages
When determining what stage the breast cancer is at, three things are assessed: the size of the tumour, if it has spread into lymph nodes and if it has spread into other parts of the body. Sometimes this is referred to as the TNM (tumour, nodes, metastasis) system. How many lymph nodes and where tells you the category.1,2
The following table describes the different stages and categories of breast cancer:2
Category 1 = breast cancer cells found in 1–3 lymph nodes
Category 2 = breast cancer cells found in: 4–9 lymph nodes in armpit and the lymph nodes are swollen and/or stuck together or to nearby tissue; OR ≥1 lymph nodes under the breastbone but not in the armpit
Category 3 = breast cancer cells found in: ≥10 lymph nodes in armpit; OR ≥1 lymph node above or below collarbone; OR ≥1 lymph node under the breastbone and ≥1 lymph node in the armpit
Grading breast cancer
The grade describes the activity of the cancer cells - such as how fast they might grow. There are only three grades:1
- Grade 1 (low grade) - slow growing and look a little different to normal cells
- Grade 2 (intermediate grade) - grow faster than grade 1 and do not look like normal cells
- Grade 3 (high grade) - grow fast and look very different to normal cells
Key information about the cancer
Some additional features that may impact treatment choices and outcomes include:1
- Hormone receptor status - whether or not the cancer cells have more than the normal amount of hormone receptors, which could mean the cancer will respond to hormone treatment
- HER2 status - HER2 stands for human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, a protein found on all cells. If breast cancer cells have more HER2 they may respond to treatment designed to target the HER2 proteins
- Triple negative breast cancer - these cancer cells do not have extra hormone receptors or extra HER2, so they will not respond to treatments designed to specially target these proteins
Prognosis means what is expected to happen. While nobody can predict the future, there are some things we do know based on the stage, grade and other aspects of the cancer.1 If your doctor wants to discuss your five-year survival rate - don’t worry. This doesn’t mean you only have five years left, rather it is the time period used in clinical trials so makes comparing outcomes easier.1
Find out more about breast cancer here
Any medical procedure or treatment involving the use of radiation carries risks, including skin irritation and associated pain. Before proceeding with treatment, you should discuss the risks and benefits of the treatment with an appropriately qualified health practitioner. Individual treatment outcomes and experiences will vary.
- Cancer Council. Understanding breast cancer. Available from: https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/breast-cancer/about-breast-cancer/ (accessed August 2023).
- Cancer Australia. Breast Cancer. Available from: https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/cancer-types/breast-cancer/overview (accessed August 2023).