Understanding your diagnosis

Understanding your diagnosis

Your specialist gets a lot of information about your cancer from your test results.

This may include:

  • the cells it started in (cancer type)
  • whether it has spread from where it started (cancer stage)
  • whether it is likely to grow quickly or slowly (cancer grade).

Your specialist uses this information to explain how the cancer could affect you in the future (your prognosis), and what your treatment options are. 

What you need to know

Cancer type

The most common way to describe cancers is by the part of the body they start in, for example:

  • skin cancer
  • breast cancer
  • brain cancer.

Cancers can also be named after the type of cell they start in. 

For example, skin cancers can be:

  • basal cell carcinomas
  • squamous cell carcinomas, or
  • melanomas (which start in cells called melanocytes).

Some cancers also have other characteristics. 

For example, some breast cancers have receptors for the female hormones oestrogen or progesterone. These are called oestrogen receptor positive or progesterone receptor positive cancers. 

The way cancers are described and named can be confusing. Ask your doctor to explain what type of cancer you have and anything else you should know about it.

Cancer stage

The stage of a cancer is how large it is and how far it has spread when it is first diagnosed. 

Knowing the stage of a cancer helps doctors to work out the best treatment options. It also means the person with cancer can fully understand their situation and discuss any concerns they have. 

There are different staging systems for different cancers. The most common ones are the TNM and numbered staging systems. Blood cancers have their own staging systems.

TNM system

The TNM system measures three categories:

  • T (tumour) – how large the tumour (cancer) is
  • N (lymph nodes) – whether it has spread into the surrounding lymph nodes
  • M (metastases) – whether it has spread to other parts of the body and formed secondary cancers (metastases).

Numbered staging system

The numbered system uses the TNM information to give a stage number to the cancer:

  • Stage 0 – ‘in-situ’ cancer means the cancer cells have not spread at all.
  • Stage 1 – the cancer is small and has only spread a little into nearby tissues. It has not spread to any lymph nodes or other body areas.
  • Stage 2 and 3 – the cancer is larger or has spread into nearby tissues or lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4 – the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. This is also called metastatic cancer or advanced cancer.

Cancer grade

The grade of a cancer is based on how abnormal the cells look under a microscope. Cancers with very abnormal cells are likely to grow and spread faster. 

  • Grade 1 (low grade) – the cells look similar to normal cells and are growing and dividing slowly.
  • Grade 2 (intermediate grade) – the cells don’t look like normal cells and are growing and dividing faster than normal cells.
  • Grade 3 (high grade) – the cells look very abnormal and are growing and dividing quickly.

What to ask or talk about

Talking about prognosis

Prognosis means what is likely to happen to you in the future because of your cancer. You may find it hard to talk about prognosis but it can help you make decisions about the treatment and care you want.

Everyone’s cancer is different, and everyone responds differently to treatment. Because of this, doctors can’t tell you exactly what will happen to you. Instead, they can give you the best information they have about what to expect.

Doctors work out prognosis based on statistics. These show what happens in large groups of people with cancer. They cannot predict what will happen to you or any other individual person. 

Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Next steps

Treatment planning

Your specialist will share information about you and your cancer with a multidisciplinary team (MDT) to decide the best treatment options for you.

You may need more than one type of treatment or have a choice of treatments. You may also need to see other specialists during treatment planning.

Dealing with your diagnosis

Getting a cancer diagnosis is very distressing for the person with cancer, and their carers, family and friends. Different people react in different ways. They can be upset and angry or just in shock. Many people find it difficult to take in all the information and understand what it will mean for them.

The situation can be especially difficult for people who get a diagnosis of advanced cancer. 

If you need to speak to someone about your diagnosis, you can call the Cancer Council.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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