In the US, breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, accounting for around 30% of female cancers annually. Experts estimate that approximately 43,700 women will die from breast cancer in 2023.

Falling ill with a potentially fatal disease is a scary thing to happen. However, it can be less frightening if you understand the illness and how it affects your body, including during recovery. There are four breast cancer stages, and understanding them means making better-informed decisions regarding your treatment.

If you or a loved one has breast cancer or wants to find out more, keep reading. We’re discussing everything you need to know about the stages of breast cancer.

How Do Breast Cancer Stages Work?

Stage of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is measured in stages, representing the severity of the disease at the time of diagnosis. The later the breast cancer is diagnosed, the higher likelihood of a doctor diagnosing late-stage cancer.

However, your breast cancer stage won’t change, no matter what the cancer does. For example, if a doctor diagnoses you with stage two breast cancer, it doesn’t increase if the cancer spreads, nor does the stage decrease if the cancer recedes.

Instead, a medical professional may add an “r” to the stage if the cancer has responded to treatment. That indicates that they have added a new stage, and it’s no longer the diagnosed initial stage. Breast cancer stages are classified by:

  • The tumor location
  • The size of the tumor
  • Whether the cancer has spread (either to lymph nodes nearby or anywhere else in the body)
  • The grade of the tumor (how likely it’s going to grow or spread)
  • Whether doctors find proteins or hormone receptors (aka biomarkers)

Stage 0

Stage 0 breast cancer is the earliest stage that doctors can diagnose. It’s also known as carcinoma in situ. This stage means that cancer cells have been detected but haven’t yet spread. Noninvasive carcinomas occur in the ducts and are called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

Stage I

Stage 1 is next in the breast cancer stages. When diagnosed as stage 1, it means the tumor is still small. It may not have spread, or spreading is limited only to nearby lymph nodes. This spreading is also called invasive breast cancer. There are two substages within this stage, and they are:

  • Stage 1A: No spreading, and the tumor is still small
  • Stage 1B: 0.2- to 2-mm cancer is found in lymph nodes (a breast tumor smaller than 20 mm isn’t detected or isn’t detectable)

Stage of Breast Cancer

Stage II

The next stage is stage 2 breast cancer, diagnosed when the tumor is larger than stage 1. It also may have spread to more nearby lymph nodes in the breast tissue. Again there are two substages:

Stage 2A

The tumor is undetectable and has only spread to a few lymph nodes. Or the tumor has spread to up to three lymph nodes and is 20 mm or smaller. Or the tumor has not traveled, but it’s between 20 mm and 50 mm.

Stage 2B

The tumor in this substage has spread to up to three lymph nodes and is between 20 mm and 50 mm. Otherwise, it has yet to travel but is larger than 50 mm.

Stage III

Next in the breast cancer stages is Stage 3. This stage means the tumor is larger than in the previous stage. It can also spread to multiple lymph nodes at this point and include the breast bone or breast bone tissue. Unlike the earlier stages, Stage 3 has three substages, which are:

Stage 3A

The tumor in this substage hasn’t yet spread to other body parts. It is concentrated in up to nine lymph nodes or mammary lymph nodes. Otherwise, it can apply if the tumor has spread to a few lymph nodes and is larger than 50 mm.

Stage 3B

The tumor has now spread to the chest area. Because this can cause swelling to the breast, it can also be called inflammatory breast cancer. It still hasn’t spread to other body parts but is found in up to nine lymph nodes.

Stage 3C

In stage 3C, the tumor has not spread to other body parts but is found in ten or more lymph nodes. This can include nodes located under the collarbone.

Stage IV

The last breast cancer stage happens when the cancer has traveled to other body parts. Doctors call this metastatic cancer, meaning it’s become mobile. Once spreading, scans can typically find it in the bones, liver, or lungs. This stage is considered an advanced stage of cancer.

Recurrent Breast Cancer

Stage of Breast Cancer

If doctors diagnose you with cancer, you typically undergo treatment. If the treatment removes the cancer entirely, you may be “in remission.” However, sometimes no matter how much medical professionals try, the cancer returns. Typically it comes back within the first three years but can come back many years later in some rarer cases.

Recovering From Breast Cancer

When professionals are treating you for breast cancer, you have several treatment options to choose between. These options depend on what stage you’re diagnosed with. Some treatment involves surgery which can remove some or all of the breasts, and other treatments include radiation or chemotherapy.

When you have early-stage breast cancer, you may be able to choose between breast reconstructive surgery (BCS or lumpectomy) or a mastectomy.

Pro Tip: It’s important not to confuse breast reconstruction surgery for breast augmentation surgery, which is a procedure that increases breast size

It’s vital as a woman to perform regular breast exams on yourself, so you can find any abnormalities or changes early.

Check Your Breasts Today

As a woman, inspecting your breasts regularly for any lumps or abnormal changes is essential. There are many instructional videos on the internet if you don’t know how to do a breast exam.

Understanding the breast cancer stages can help if you’re ever diagnosed with the disease. It’s essential to try to catch any cancer developing in the early stages, where there is a higher chance of going into remission.

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