Breast cancer staging

Classifying your breast cancer by stage helps predict your chance of cure and helps identify the best treatment options for your particular cancer.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

After discovering that you have breast cancer, your doctor will decide what additional tests may be helpful to find out if the disease has spread outside the breast. Called breast cancer staging, this process provides information about the extent of the disease.

Your breast cancer stage helps your doctor determine which treatments are most likely to benefit you.

The stages of breast cancer

The stages of breast cancer are indicated using Roman numerals ranging from 0 to IV, with 0 indicating cancer that is noninvasive or contained within the milk ducts. Greater numerals indicate a more invasive cancer. By stage IV breast cancer, also called metastatic breast cancer, the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

The cancer staging system continues to evolve and is becoming more complex as doctors improve cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Information that helps determine your breast cancer stage

Your doctor determines your breast cancer stage by considering:

  • The size of your tumor
  • Whether cancer cells have spread to lymph nodes under your arm (axillary lymph nodes)
  • Whether cancer cells have spread to other parts of your body
  • How aggressive your cells appear when viewed under a microscope (tumor grade)
  • Whether your cancer cells have receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone
  • Whether your cancer cells have a gene mutation that causes them to make excess HER2 protein
  • Results of gene expression profiling tests (Oncotype DX, MammaPrint, others)

Tests and procedures used to stage your breast cancer

To gather information about your cancer, your doctor uses a variety of sources, including:

  • Physical exam. To gather the necessary information, your doctor will ask questions about your medical history, do a careful physical examination and review all the tests you've had. This can also include a review of the results from the biopsy of the tumor or suspicious area.
  • Pathology report. If you've already had surgery to remove your cancer and nearby lymph nodes, your doctor will use your pathology report to help determine your stage and plan your treatment.
  • Tests that evaluate your cancer cells. Cells from your cancer, collected during a biopsy procedure or during surgery to remove the cancer, are tested in a laboratory to help determine the aggressiveness of the cells and whether they are sensitive to hormones. Other sophisticated tests can determine what gene mutations are present in the cells. Not all of these tests are necessary in every case. Your doctor will help determine which tests are needed based on your particular situation.
  • Blood tests. No blood test can tell you your cancer stage, but blood tests may give your doctor an idea of your overall health and clues about which other staging tests may be useful. Blood tests might include a complete blood count and a blood chemistry test, which assess your kidney and liver function.
  • Breast-imaging tests. Mammogram, ultrasound and breast MRI give your doctor more information about your cancer and help determine if additional imaging tests may be necessary.
  • Additional imaging tests. Additional imaging can be used to look for breast cancer cells that have spread to other areas of your body. Not everyone with breast cancer needs these tests, though, so ask your doctor what's best for you.

    Additional imaging tests include a bone scan, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).

Most people with a new diagnosis of breast cancer don't need all the diagnostic tests available. Your doctor will select the necessary tests based on your situation. Particularly if your cancer is small and hasn't spread to nearby lymph nodes, additional tests may offer little benefit, but lead to additional costs and carry a risk of complications.

Feb. 12, 2022 See more In-depth

See also

  1. 3D mammogram
  2. Accelerated partial breast irradiation (ABPI)
  3. Axillary dissection
  4. Biopsy procedures
  5. Blood Basics
  6. Bone scan
  7. Brachytherapy
  8. BRCA gene test
  9. Breast cancer
  10. Breast Cancer
  11. Breast cancer chemoprevention
  12. Breast Cancer Education Tool
  13. Common questions about breast cancer treatment
  14. Breast cancer prevention
  15. Infographic: Breast Cancer Risk
  16. Breast cancer risk assessment
  17. Breast cancer supportive therapy and survivorship
  18. Breast cancer surgery
  19. Breast cancer types
  20. Breast cancer-related lymphedema
  21. Breast implants and cancer
  22. Evaluating breast lumps
  23. Breast lumps
  24. Breast MRI
  25. Infographic: Breast Reconstruction Options
  26. Breast self-exam for breast awareness
  27. Cancer blood tests
  28. Cancer survivorship program
  29. Chemo targets
  30. Chemotherapy
  31. Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment
  32. Chemotherapy and sex: Is sexual activity OK during treatment?
  33. Chemotherapy for breast cancer
  34. Chemotherapy nausea and vomiting: Prevention is best defense
  35. Chest X-rays
  36. Complete blood count (CBC)
  37. Contrast-enhanced mammography
  38. Coping with pain after breast surgery
  39. COVID-19 vaccine: Should I reschedule my mammogram?
  40. CT scan
  41. Dense breast tissue
  42. Does soy really affect breast cancer risk?
  43. Dragon Boats and Breast Cancer
  44. Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
  45. Genetic testing for breast cancer: Psychological and social impact
  46. Hormone therapy for breast cancer
  47. Intralesional injection therapy
  48. Lower your risk of breast cancer
  49. Lumpectomy
  50. Magic mouthwash
  51. Mammogram
  52. Mammogram guidelines: What are they?
  53. Mastectomy
  54. What is breast cancer? An expert explains
  55. Minimally invasive inguinal lymphadenectomy (MILND)
  56. Modified radical mastectomy
  57. Molecular breast imaging
  58. Infographic: Molecular Breast Imaging
  59. MRI
  60. MRI-guided breast biopsy
  61. Nipple discharge
  62. Nipple-sparing mastectomy
  63. Oncoplastic breast-conserving surgery
  64. PALS (Pets Are Loving Support)
  65. Paulas story A team approach to battling breast cancer
  66. Pink Sisters
  67. Positron emission mammography (PEM)
  68. Positron emission tomography scan
  69. Precision medicine for breast cancer
  70. Prophylactic mastectomy
  71. Radiation therapy
  72. Radiation therapy for breast cancer
  73. Infographic: Scalp Cooling Therapy for Cancer
  74. Seeing inside the heart with MRI
  75. Sentinel node biopsy
  76. Skin-sparing mastectomy
  77. Stereotactic breast biopsy
  78. Support groups
  79. Surgical biopsy
  80. The Long Race Beating Cancer
  81. Thyroid guard: Do I need one during a mammogram?
  82. Tomosynthesis-guided breast biopsy
  83. Ultrasound
  84. Sentinel node biopsy for melanoma
  85. Mammogram for breast cancer — What to expect
  86. MRI
  87. Tai chi
  88. Weight Loss After Breast Cancer
  89. X-ray