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Lung cancer staging: Why it is important and how it works

MD Anderson Cancer Center

June 2, 2022

Ronda Wendler

Lung cancer staging: Why it is important and how it works

When you’re diagnosed with lung cancer, one of the most important things you’ll learn is your cancer’s stage. Staging is a way of describing the location of a tumor or cancer cells in your body, the tumor’s size and whether the cancer is in one spot or has spread.

That knowledge is crucial, says medical oncologist Natalie Vokes, M.D.

“To identify the best treatment plan for you, your doctor first needs to know your cancer’s stage,” Vokes says. “Staging is so critical, in fact, that you should never begin treatment without it.”

But lung cancer is complex, and different forms of the disease are staged in different ways. We spoke with Vokes to learn more.

How is a lung cancer’s stage determined?

You’ll undergo various tests and procedures to learn your cancer’s stage. These usually include MRIs, CT scans and/or PET scans, and lymph node biopsies. You may also have a lung function test to see how healthy your lungs are.

Your doctor will combine the results of these procedures to stage your cancer, using the TNM classification system. These letters stand for: