, Salem, MA

Fighting breast cancer

October 16, 2012

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


Stage 2 is still considered early stage breast cancer, according to Alschuler, meaning it’s a potentially curable disease. But it does still involve aggressive treatment, she says. When a sample is taken through a biopsy, the pathologist will give a grade to the tumor. “The higher the grade, the more aggressive,” Alschuler says.

Not everyone with the same stage is treated the same. At stage 2, the treatments differ; a patient may undergo chemotherapy, or a mastectomy, or maybe just radiation. “The intent of the treatment in these stages is to cure because it hasn’t spread yet,” Alschuler says.

Stage 3

A stage 3 diagnosis indicates a 5-centimeter or larger tumor. The tumor is on the same side as the lymph nodes where it has spread, usually in the armpit area. There are more nodes involved, typically more than three, usually four to nine. Sometimes in stage 3, the tumor has grown deeper into the chest wall or up into the skin, affecting different types of tissue. At this stage, a different type of breast cancer may be on display: inflammatory. “Inflammatory breast cancer is a different type

of cancer cell,” Alschuler says. “It tends to be more aggressive, and more resistant to treatment. There are not as many effective treatments available for this type.”

The cancer is still treatable at stage 3, but it generally has a greater degree of risk for reoccurrence. It’s more aggressive than the other stages, with systemic treatment. Alschuler says it’s very rare that doctors wouldn’t recommend chemo at this point.

Stage 4

Stage 4, the final stage of diagnosis, is the most serious and the most progressed. Any size of tumor or lymph node involvement can appear at this stage, but the main indicator of stage four is that the cancer has spread, typically to the bone or liver.

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