A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

A guide: Cancer stages, terms and side effects

Finding out a loved one has cancer may be one of the hardest things you will ever hear. This guide will help you understand cancer stages, terms often used to describe cancer and side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatment.

numbers showing the stages of cancer

Cancer stages use a four-stage system to describe solid tumors.

Besides learning how to provide meaningful support, you’ll learn about the disease, side effects and words used to talk about cancer. It can be overwhelming, but don’t be afraid to ask questions, said Katy Anderson, a nurse practitioner for Cancer Care & Research at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

“If something doesn’t make sense or you’re not quite sure what it means, ask your family member or maybe accompany them to the appointment,” Anderson said.

Four cancer stages for solid tumors

Four cancer stages describe the size and reach of solid tumors and whether cancer has affected other parts of the body. Size of the primary tumor, lymph node involvement and presence of cancer in distant sites factor into staging, Anderson said.

Stage 1: A small cancerous mass or tumor has been found. Size of the tumor depends on the type of cancer involved. The disease has not spread to lymph nodes or other tissues. This sometimes is called early-stage cancer.

Stage 2: Cancer has spread to a regional lymph node or tissue near the mass and/or the mass is large enough to not be classified as stage 1.

Stage 3: Cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes farther from the mass. The mass may have grown.

Stage 4: Cancer has metastasized, or spread, to other tissues or organs. This sometimes is called metastatic cancer.

Many cancers, but not all, are staged this way.

“Cancers of blood and bone are staged using different categories because they are more of a systemic illness,” Anderson said.

Download this stages of cancer graphic


chart to help you understand the stages of cancer

Blood gives clues about cancer, treatment

Blood cell counts provide information about blood cancers and effects of chemotherapy.

White blood cells are the body’s immune cells. Chemotherapy can cause them to regenerate slowly. Medication can help them regenerate more quickly so patients don’t have a prolonged low immune system.

Red blood cells carry oxygen to body tissues. Someone with low red blood cell count may feel tired, short of breath, have headaches or be iron deficient. Patients may need blood transfusions.

Platelets are blood cells involved in the clotting process. Low platelet counts put patients at higher risk for uncontrolled bleeding, so cancer specialists, called oncologists, watch them closely during treatment.

Oncologists will order other tests to monitor the disease and treatment effects based on cancer type, Anderson said.

Handling cancer treatment side effects

Side effects of cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy can be difficult for families as well as patients.

“It can be frustrating for families if their loved ones lose their appetite, but sticking with favorite foods can help,” Anderson said.

People diagnosed with cancer may be nauseated, have no desire to eat or taste food differently. Some patients also need IV or oral nutrition replacement if their bodies aren’t absorbing nutrients.

They often struggle with fatigue during and after treatment. It may take a year to return to normal activity level. Help your loved one start with mild activity regularly and decide how much he or she can handle.

Other cancer treatment side effects may include

It can be difficult for you to understand the challenges your loved one undergoing cancer treatment faces. They may feel helpless, depressed, anxious and worried. Roles and responsibilities may change.

“These feelings are normal,” Anderson said. “Support groups and social engagements are helpful in maintaining a sense of normalcy.”

For questions about cancer care, talk to a Marshfield Clinic Health System provider.

Find a Cancer Care & Research provider Learn more about Cancer Care & Research

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