Cancer Treatment Centers of America

TNM system for head and neck cancer

While staging head and neck cancer, the pathologist determines where exactly the disease formed, how extensive it is and whether and how much it has spread. The stage of head and neck cancer is one of the most important factors in determining treatment options that may be tailored to your needs.

Head and neck cancer stages are typically based on the results of physical exams, endoscopies, biopsies and imaging tests, such as CT scans, MRIs, chest X-rays and/or PET scans.


The American Joint Committee on Cancer developed the TNM cancer staging system to evaluate three primary factors when it comes to treating cancer:

  • Tumor (T) refers to the size of the primary tumor and to which, if any, tissues in the oral cavity and oropharynx the cancer has spread.
  • Node (N) describes the involvement of lymph nodes near the primary tumor. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped clusters of immune system cells that are key to fighting infections and are usually one of the first sites in the body to which cancer spreads.
  • Metastasis (M) indicates whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body. With oral cancer, the most common site of metastases is the lungs, followed by the liver and bones.

During the head and neck cancer staging process, your doctor will assign T, N and M values to the disease based on its microscopic appearance. Your care team at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) will thoroughly review your medical history, family history and other factors to develop an individualized treatment plan for you.

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