Icon - Stages of kidney cancer

Stages of kidney cancer

Once kidney cancer has been diagnosed by looking at the biopsy or at the cancer after it has been surgically removed from the body, the next step is to determine the stage of the cancer.

The stage of a cancer describes the size of the cancer and whether or not it has spread. This helps to guide treatment and plan follow-up care for the long term.

When staging is based on clinical assessment alone, it is referred to as the clinical stage. Microscopic examination of the affected tissue determines the pathologic stage.

A staging system is a standardised way in which the cancer care team describes the extent of the cancer. Your doctor will determine the stage of your kidney cancer, based on what’s called the T-N-M staging system, as follows:

  • The size of the tumour (T-stage).
  • Spread of the cancer to the nearby lymph nodes (N-stage). A lymph node is like a police station; it’s a small round gland that makes up part of the immune system and houses white blood cells (the police officers) that remove bacteria, cancer cells and foreign particles from the body. Unfortunately, cancer cells like to spread to lymph nodes.
  • If there are signs of the cancer having spread to other organs such as the liver, lungs or bones; that is, it has metastasised (M-stage).

In Australia, the T-N-M staging system is one of the methods on which the four main stages of kidney cancer are based.

Four main stages

Stage 1 – The cancer is only within the kidney, has not spread and is less than seven centimetres in size. If the cancer can be removed it is most likely to be cured with surgery. Five years after an operation, nine out of ten people will be alive and free of the cancer.

Stage 2 – The cancer is larger than seven centimetres but is still confined to the kidney and has not spread outside of the kidney. Surgery is a good treatment option. After surgery, the five-year survival rate is still very high for this stage of kidney cancer.

Stage 3 – The cancer has moved nearby outside the kidney, but has not spread to distant organs. For example, the cancer might have spread into the fat around the kidney, into the blood vessel coming out of the kidney, or into lymph nodes near the kidney. Surgery is often the right treatment. The chance of being cured by surgery is lower, but not zero.

Stage 4 – The kidney cancer has spread widely outside the kidney, to the abdominal cavity, the adrenal glands, distant lymph nodes or to other organs, such as the lungs, liver, bones or brain. This stage of cancer is very unlikely to be cured, but various treatments can help.

Kidney cancerTreatment options
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