doctor speaking to a patient

There are many parts to a cancer diagnosis. Your doctor will tell you the:

  • Type of cancer you have
  • Stage of your cancer
  • and in some cases the Grade of your cancer

Type of Cancer

The type of cancer is named after the part of the body where it started. Lung cancer is cancer that starts in the lungs. If cancer has spread (metastasized) to a different part of your body, it is still the same type of cancer. For example, cancer that starts in the lungs but has spread to the bones is called lung cancer with bone metastases.

Stage of Cancer

For solid tumours, the stage of cancer describes the extent of the cancer in the body. To assign the cancer stage, your doctor will determine:

  • The size and location of the original tumour
  • If, and how much, the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues
  • Whether or not the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
  • Whether or not the cancer has spread to other parts of the body

The stage of your cancer is determined after a series of tests and often after surgery. The tests may include:

  • Physical examination: A physical exam may show the location and size of the tumour(s) and the spread of the cancer to the lymph nodes or to other organs.
  • Imaging studies: Pictures of the inside of the body, such as x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, can show the location of the cancer, the size of the tumour and whether the cancer has spread.
  • Laboratory tests: Studies of blood, urine, other fluids and tissues taken from the body can provide information about the cancer and how the cancer may be affecting the organs in the body.
  • Pathology studies: A biopsy (removal and study of a small tissue sample) may be performed to provide information for the pathology report. A pathology report gives details about the size of the tumour, the growth of the tumour into other tissues and organs, the type of cancer cells and the grade of the tumour. Cytology reports describe the results of examination of cells in body fluids.
  • Surgery: Surgical reports tell what was found during surgery and describe the size and appearance of the tumour. These reports often include observations about lymph nodes and nearby organs.

Knowing the stage of your cancer can help your health care team choose the most effective treatment, as well as an appropriate clinical trial (if you want to participate in one).

Note: Cancer staging is not used for most cancers of the blood.

Grade of Cancer

The grade of the cancer classifies the cancer cells based on how they look and act. A pathologist will view the cancer cells under a microscope to find out how different they appear from your normal cells, how quickly they multiply and how likely they are to spread to other parts of your body.

Different types of cancer use different grading systems. In general, tumours are graded low, medium or high.

  • Low-grade tumours have cells that look and act like the healthy cells around them. A low-grade tumour grows slowly, and is not aggressive or likely to spread.
  • Medium-grade tumours have a mix of high-grade and low-grade tumour cells or they look and act between the extremes of high-grade and low-grade tumours.
  • High-grade tumours have cells that look very different from the healthy cells around them. A high-grade tumour grows faster and is more likely to spread than a low-grade tumour.

The grade of a tumour is useful for most types of cancer, but not all. Knowing the grade of your cancer helps with planning your treatment and measuring how well treatment is working.

You can ask your health care team for copies of your reports and test results.​
Last reviewed: 5/5/2022
Last modified: 10/30/2023 12:06 PM
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