Your doctor will tell you what stage of throat cancer you have as part of the diagnosis process. The stage describes how widespread or advanced the cancer is. Determining the stage helps doctors explain the extent of the cancer to you. It also helps them determine how to move forward with treatment, including surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.
Your doctor will assign a stage to the cancer after your biopsy results or imaging test results are in. The stage may be adjusted if you have additional tests or after surgery. There are five stages of throat cancer, starting at zero and going up to four. (They are represented by the Roman numerals I, II, III, and IV.)
These are the basic stages of throat cancer:
Stage 0 Throat Cancer
Also called carcinoma in situ, this is the very beginning of the scale. It describes abnormal cells in the lining of the throat that have the potential to become cancer.
Stage I Throat Cancer
Stage I describes a very early stage of cancer. The tumor is not more than two centimeters, and the cancer has not reached the lymph nodes.
Stage II Throat Cancer
Stage II describes a tumor that is larger than two centimeters but not more than four centimeters. Stage II cancer has not reached the lymph nodes.
Stage III Throat Cancer
Stage III throat cancer describes cancer that either is larger than four centimeters or has spread to a lymph node on the same side of the neck as the tumor. That lymph node is also smaller than three centimeters.
Stage IV Throat Cancer
Stage IV is the most-advanced stage of throat cancer. The tumor may be any size, but it has spread to:
- nearby tissue, such as the neck, trachea, thyroid, esophagus, jaw, mouth, or other locations
- one large lymph node (more than three centimeters in size) on the same side of the neck as the tumor, multiple lymph nodes of any size on the same side of the neck as the tumor, or one lymph node of any size on the side of the neck opposite the tumor
- distant parts of the body beyond the throat, such as the lungs
Throat cancer may be stage IV when it is first diagnosed. Stage IV throat cancer can also be recurrent throat cancer (cancer that has come back after treatment). The cancer may come back in the part of the body where it originally developed (regional recurrence), in the lymph nodes (regional relapse), or in another part of the body (distant recurrence).
Stage III and stage IV throat cancers are more likely to come back after initial treatment than earlier-stage cancers.