Throat cancer stages

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science.

This page was updated on June 3, 2022.

Making an educated treatment decision begins with the stage, or progression, of the disease. The stage of throat cancer is one of the most important factors in evaluating treatment options.

Our cancer doctors use a variety of diagnostic tests to evaluate throat cancer and develop an individualized treatment plan. If you have been recently diagnosed, we will review your pathology to confirm you have received the correct diagnosis and staging information, and develop a personalized treatment plan. If you have a recurrence, we will perform comprehensive testing and identify a treatment approach that is suited to your needs.

We stage throat cancer using The American Joint Committee on Cancer’s (AJCC) TNM system, a commonly accepted method based on three key components:

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.

A number (0-4) or the letter X is assigned to each factor. A higher number indicates increasing severity. For instance, a T1 score indicates a smaller tumor than a T2 score. The letter X means the information could not be assessed.

Once the T, N and M scores have been assigned, one of these overall stages is assigned:

Stage 1 throat cancer:  The tumor is small (2 cm or less across) and limited to the throat.

Stage 2 throat cancer The tumor has grown larger (usually between 2 cm and 4 cm) but still remains within the throat. There is no evidence of spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage 3 throat cancer: The tumor has grown beyond the throat and may extend into nearby tissues or organs. The cancer may or may not have spread to a nearby lymph node.

Stage 4 throat cancer: The tumor may be any size and remain in the neck, or it may have affected multiple lymph nodes. It may also have spread to distant sites, such as the lungs.

Next topic: How is throat cancer diagnosed?

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