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What Is the Difference between Cancer Stage and Grade?


A cancer diagnosis is scary and the last thing we want is for you to be confused by complicated medical jargon. One of the areas we hear patients question us about is the difference between a cancer stage and a cancer grade. Let us break it down for you here.

Cancer Stage and Cancer Grade Mean Different Things

Stage refers to how big the cancer/tumor is and whether or not it has spread. An easy way to remember this is to remember that stage, size, and spread all begin with “s”. Grade refers to how the cancer cells look under a microscope. You can remember this by remembering grade, green and gross all start with “g”. While cancer cells do not necessarily look green or gross, the alliteration makes it an easy way to remember the difference between the words. Doctors use both stage and grade to help them decide which treatment to prescribe.

Grades of Cancer

As far as diagnoses go, low grade cancers are better than high-grade cancers. When viewed under a microscope, low-grade cancers look more like normal tissue. Low-grade cancers tend to grow slowly and are less likely to spread.

High-grade cancers look abnormal and are generally more aggressive. Higher grade cancers are more likely to spread, recur, and are more likely to require chemotherapy. Grade can be used as an indicator of how the cells in the tumor will behave and doctors can use it to help stage the cancer.

Here Is a Basic Breakdown of the Cancer Grades:

Grade 1 – Cancer cells resemble normal cells and aren’t growing rapidly. 

Grade 2 – Cancer cells don’t look like normal cells and are growing faster than normal cells. 

Grade 3 – Cancer cells look abnormal and may grow and/or spread quickly.

Stages of Cancer

Cancer is typically labeled in stages from I to IV, with I being the best or least serious and IV being the worst or most serious. A cancer is always referred to by the stage it was given at diagnosis, even if it gets worse or spreads. New information about how a cancer has changed over time is added to the original stage. So the stage doesn’t change, even though the cancer itself might.

There are different staging systems. Some are used for many types of cancer such as the TNM staging system. Others are specific to particular types of cancer. Most staging systems include information about where the tumor is located, size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body. 

Here Is a Basic Breakdown of the Cancer Stages:

Stage 0 – Abnormal cells are present but have not spread to nearby tissue. This is also called carcinoma in situ, or CIS. The words “in situ” mean “in its original place.” These  cells are not malignant, or cancerous, but because they can sometimes become cancerous and spread to other nearby locations it is considered stage zero. 

Stage 1 – Cancer cells are localized to a small area and haven’t spread to lymph nodes or other tissues. 

Stage 2 –  Cancer cells have grown, but haven’t spread.

Stage 3The cancer has grown larger and has possibly spread to lymph nodes or other tissues. 

Stage 4 – The cancer has metastasized or spread to other  parts of the body.

We hope this helps clarify the difference between the stages of cancer and grades of cancer. Both higher grade and stage cancers tend to be harder to cure and often require more intense treatments. 

If you have been diagnosed with testicular, prostate, kidney, or bladder cancer, contact one of the 23 KCUC Urology and Oncology locations throughout Kansas and Missouri and schedule an appointment to speak with a urologist for a second opinion. At KCUC, you see the best in KC.