Stages of Breast Cancer

If the biopsy shows that you have breast cancer, your doctor needs to learn the extent (stage) of the disease to help you choose the best treatment. The stage is based on the size of the cancer, whether the cancer has invaded nearby tissues, and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Staging may involve blood tests and other tests:

  • Bone scan: The doctor injects a small amount of a radioactive substance into a blood vessel. It travels through the bloodstream and collects in the bones. A machine called a scanner detects and measures the radiation. The scanner makes pictures of the bones. The pictures may show cancer that has spread to the bones.
  • CT scan: Doctors sometimes use CT scans to look for breast cancer that has spread to the liver or lungs. An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your chest or abdomen. You may receive contrast material by injection into a blood vessel in your arm or hand. The contrast material makes abnormal areas easier to see.
  • Lymph node biopsy: The stage often is not known until after surgery to remove the tumor in your breast and one or more lymph nodes under your arm. Surgeons use a method called sentinel lymph node biopsy to remove the lymph node most likely to have breast cancer cells. The surgeon injects a blue dye, a radioactive substance, or both near the breast tumor. Or the surgeon may inject a radioactive substance under the nipple. The surgeon then uses a scanner to find the sentinel lymph node containing the radioactive substance or looks for the lymph node stained with dye. The sentinel node is removed and checked for cancer cells. Cancer cells may appear first in the sentinel node before spreading to other lymph nodes and other places in the body.

These tests can show whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of your body. When breast cancer spreads, cancer cells are often found in lymph nodes under the arm (axillary lymph nodes). Also, breast cancer can spread to almost any other part of the body, such as the bones, liver, lungs, and brain.

When breast cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary (original) tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer. For that reason, it is treated as breast cancer, not bone cancer. Doctors call the new tumor "distant" or metastatic disease.

These are the stages of breast cancer:

Source: National Cancer Institute 

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