Intestinal cancer stages

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on May 20, 2022.


Doctors use a variety of diagnostic tests to evaluate intestinal cancer and develop an individualized treatment plan for each patient.

Intestinal cancer, also called small bowel cancer or small intestine cancer, is rare, representing fewer than 1 percent of all cancers diagnosed each year. After being diagnosed with intestinal cancer, the patient's care team will review the pathology to confirm the diagnosis and staging information and develop a personalized treatment plan. If a recurrence occurs, the care team will perform comprehensive testing and identify a cancer treatment approach tailored to the patient's needs.

Adenocarcinoma, the most common type of intestinal cancer, may develop nearly anywhere in the body because it starts in glands lining the inside of the organs.

Adenocarcinomas are typically staged using the American Joint Committee on Cancer's TNM system. Some types of cancers like carcinoid tumors do not have a standard staging system. In this case, the spread of the cancer is simply defined as localized, regional or distant. The intestinal cancer stages described here are for the more common adenocarcinomas and are defined using the TNM system.

The combined categories, T, N and M, create the stages 0 through 4:

T (tumor): This describes the size of the original tumor.

N (node): This indicates whether the cancer is present in the lymph nodes.

M (metastasis): This refers to whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Each category (T, N and M) is assessed and rated. An X is used to denote insufficient information (the condition of the particular factor cannot be adequately assessed). Once the category is assigned, the intestinal cancer is diagnosed at one of the following stages:


Stage 0 intestinal cancer: The cancer has not grown beyond the mucosa.

Stage 1 intestinal cancer: In this stage, the disease has grown beyond the mucosa, but has not spread beyond the small intestine to other sites or lymph nodes.

Stage 2 intestinal cancer: The cancer has grown into or through the intestinal wall. At this stage, it may or may not have reached nearby organs. There is no evidence of spread of disease to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage 3 intestinal cancer: In stage 3 of intestinal cancer, the disease has metastasized to nearby lymph nodes. The tumor may be any size (T1 through T4). The cancer may or may not have reached nearby organs. Distant sites like the lung or liver remain unaffected.

Stage 4 intestinal cancer: The cancer may be any size and has spread throughout the body to distant sites like the liver, lung or lining of the abdominal cavity.

Next topic: How is intestinal cancer diagnosed?

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