, Salem, MA

Fighting breast cancer

October 16, 2012

On a scale of 0 to 4: A guide to understanding the stages of breast cancer

A breast cancer diagnosis is overwhelming enough on its own. But throw in the new terminology that family and patients must comprehend to process and understand the disease, and that overwhelming factor is ramped up tenfold.

One of the hardest to grasp concepts can be the “stages” of breast cancer. Doctors use stages to classify the progress of the cancer, as well as the origins and prognosis. From zero to four, each stage can be broken down into even more categories and types, depending on factors like size, the involvement of lymph nodes and whether the cancer has spread.

Here, Dr. Lise Alschuler, a naturopathic physician, author of “Five to Thrive: Your Cutting-Edge Cancer Prevention Plan” (Active Interest Media Inc. 2011) and breast cancer survivor herself, walks us through each stage.

Stage 0

Many people are unaware of the very first stage of breast cancer, stage 0. Considered a precancerous condition, “not all of it goes on to become cancer,” Alschuler says. While patients may still be offered treatment such as radiation or a lumpectomy, Alschuler calls this more of a “wait and watch” period, before an official diagnosis can be confirmed.

Stage 1

“The main difference between stage 0 and stage 1 is that (the cancer) is now invasive,” Alschuler says.

A stage 1 diagnosis means that a group of cells have been mutated enough that they are able to grow into a tumor. Stage 1 tumors are considered fairly small — less than 2 centimeters in the greatest diameter. At this point, they have not spread to the lymph nodes, or if they have, there are only microscopic cells that have moved.

Stage 2

There are two types of stage 2 breast cancer: type A and type B. In type A, the tumor is larger than type B, but there are no cancer cells in the nodes, or cells are in the nodes but on the same side as the tumor and in small numbers. In type B, the tumor is between 2 to 5 centimeters, but there is more lymph node involvement. There is also a rare type of B with a large tumor but no node involvement.

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