Breast cancer stages

Learn more about breast cancer stages, from stage 1 to 4. The stage describes the size of the cancer and how far it has spread.

What are breast cancer stages?

The stage of a cancer describes the size of the cancer and how far it has spread. 

Your breast cancer may be described as stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 or stage 4. 

An early form of breast cancer called is sometimes referred to as stage 0 breast cancer.

The stage takes into account:

  • The size of the cancer
  • Whether the are affected
  • If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body

The stage of your cancer may not be fully known until after you have had surgery. 

How stage affects treatment

Your treatment team will look at the cancer stage, size and grade, as well as the type of cancer, if it has hormone receptors or is HER2-positive, to decide the most appropriate treatment.

Stage or grade?

The difference between stage and grade can be confusing. If you’re not sure which one your specialist is talking about, ask them or your breast care nurse to explain it to you. 

You can also call our helpline or use our Ask Our Nurses email service - see the 'Find Support' section at the bottom of this page for more details.

Stage 1 breast cancer

Stage 1 breast cancer is divided into two groups:

  • Stage 1A
  • Stage 1B

Stage 1A means the cancer is 2cm or smaller and has not spread outside the breast.

Stage 1B can mean:

  • No cancer is seen in the breast, but a very tiny area of breast cancer (0.2mm–2mm) is found in the lymph nodes under the arm (known as micrometastasis)

or

  • The cancer in the breast is 2cm or smaller and a very tiny area of breast cancer (0.2mm–2mm) is found in the lymph nodes under the arm (micrometastasis)

Stage 2 breast cancer

Stage 2 breast cancer is divided into two groups:

  • Stage 2A
  • Stage 2B

Stage 2A can mean:

  • No cancer is seen in the breast but cancer is found in one to three lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone

or

  • The cancer in the breast is 2cm or smaller and cancer is found in one to three lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone.

or

  • The cancer in the breast is larger than 2cm but smaller than 5cm and no cancer is found in the lymph nodes under the arm.

Stage 2B can mean:

  • The cancer in the breast is larger than 2cm but smaller than 5cm. Cancer is found in one to three lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone

or

  • The cancer in the breast is larger than 5cm and no cancer is found in the lymph nodes under the arm.

Stage 3 breast cancer (sometimes called locally advanced breast cancer)

Stage 3 breast cancer is divided into three groups:

  • Stage 3A
  • Stage 3B
  • Stage 3C

Stage 3A can mean:

  • No cancer is seen in the breast, but cancer is found in four to nine lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone

or

  • The cancer in the breast measures up to 5cm and cancer is found in four to nine lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone

or

  • The cancer in the breast is larger than 5cm, and cancer is found in up to three lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone.

Stage 3B means the cancer in the breast can be any size and has spread to the skin of the breast or chest wall. Cancer is found in up to nine lymph nodes under the arm or near the breast bone.

Stage 3C means the cancer in the breast can be any size, may have spread to the skin of the breast or chest wall and cancer is found in 10 or more lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone, or to nodes above or below the collarbone.

Stage 4 breast cancer

Stage 4 breast cancer is also known as secondary breast cancer.

Stage 4 breast cancer means:

  • The tumour can be any size
  • The lymph nodes may or may not contain cancer cells
  • The cancer has spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body such as the bones, lungs, liver or brain

If your cancer is found in the lymph nodes under the arm but nowhere else in the body you do not have stage 4 breast cancer.

TNM cancer staging system

Some doctors use the TNM staging system. This is a scoring system used to describe:

  • The size of the cancer (T stands for tumour)
  • The number of lymph nodes affected (N stands for nodes)
  • Whether there’s any spread of the cancer to other parts of the body (M stands for metastases)

The individual scores are then grouped together to get an overall stage.

Source: Cancer Research UK

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Last reviewed in March 2021. The next planned review begins in November 2023.

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