Cancer stages

Stage 2 cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on April 29, 2022.

Stage 2 cancer refers to larger tumors or cancers that have grown more deeply into nearby tissue. In this stage, the cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes, but not to other parts of the body. While it's not considered advanced cancer, stage 2 cancers are more advanced than stage 1 cancers.

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our cancer experts recognize that stage 2 cancer is a complex disease. We use a variety of sophisticated tests and procedures to measure the stage of the disease, and to design a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your diagnosis and individual needs.

At CTCA®, our team of experts work together to coordinate your care, discussing your options with you and answering your questions. Call us any time, or chat online with a member of our team.

What is stage 2 cancer?

Stage 2 cancers are typically larger than stage 1 cancers and/or have spread to nearby lymph nodes. Like stage 1 cancers, stage 2 cancers are typically treated with local therapies such as surgery or radiation therapy.

Stage 2 cancer is determined in the five most common cancers in the following way:

Stage 2 breast cancer

In stage 2 breast cancer, the tumor measures between 2 cm and 5 cm, or the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm on the same side as the breast cancer. The cancer cells have spread beyond the original location and into the surrounding breast tissue, and a tumor may be detected during a breast self-exam as a hard lump.

Learn more about breast cancer stages

Stage 2 lung cancer

In non-small cell lung cancers, which account for more than 80 percent of lung cancer diagnoses, stage 2 means the cancer may have spread to nearby lymph nodes or into the chest wall.

Learn more about lung cancer stages

Stage 2 prostate cancer

Cancer may be detected during a digital rectal exam. The disease is still confined to the prostate, but the cells may be abnormal and may grow faster.

Learn more about prostate cancer stages

Stage 2 colorectal cancer

Cancer has grown through the outermost layer of the colon or rectum and may have grown through it and into nearby organs or tissues. It has not spread to the lymph nodes or distant organs.

Learn more about colorectal cancer stages

Stage 2 melanoma

The cancer cells have grown more deeply into the skin or have more high-risk features, but they have not spread to the lymph nodes.

Learn more about melanoma stages

Staging and grading for stage 2 cancer

TNM staging system

Cancer staging determines how much it has progressed and where it’s located. In most cases, cancer is staged using some form of the TNM system, which stands for:

  • T (tumor), for the size of the original tumor
  • N (node), whether the cancer is present in the lymph nodes
  • M (metastasis), whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body

The definitions for each category are a bit more detailed, providing information for different cancers, such as giving a range of tumor sizes in centimeters or inches.

Below, find what each part of the TNM system means in general.

T: How big is the tumor?

  • TX: Your care team couldn’t get enough information about the tumor.
  • T0: The main tumor couldn’t be found.
  • Tis: The tumor is “in situ,” meaning it hasn’t spread from the cell layer where it began.
  • T1, T2, T3, T4: These numbers correspond with the size of the tumor, or whether the tumor is growing into any other tissue nearby. The higher the number, the larger the tumor.

N: Is cancer in the lymph nodes?

  • NX: Your care team couldn’t get enough information about lymph node involvement.
  • N0: The lymph nodes nearby don’t have cancer.
  • N1, N2, N3: These numbers correspond to cancer in nearby lymph nodes. A higher number means more lymph nodes have cancer in them.

M: Has the cancer metastasized?

  • MX: You care team couldn’t get enough information about the spread of the cancer.
  • M0: Cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.
  • M1: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Sometimes, subcategories provide even more specific information about the cancer’s size or location. For example, a tumor that falls into the T2 category may further be defined as T2a or T2b.

Cancer grades

The grade of a tumor is different from the stage of a cancer. The stage of a cancer tells you the size of the original tumor or tumors and how much it’s spread. The grade of a tumor tells you how different the cancer cells are from normal tissue.

After a biopsy or surgery, the cells from your tumor are sent to a laboratory to be studied by a pathologist. If the tumor’s cells have a very different structure than normal tissue, it may signal that the cancer is growing rapidly.

Your cancer care team may use the grade of your tumor as one more piece of information, along with your age and preferences, to determine a treatment plan. For certain types of cancers, such as brain tumors, breast tumors and prostate tumors, the grade is especially important to your care team when creating a treatment plan. For example, brain cancer is usually graded rather than staged, based on factors including:

  • Size and location of the tumor
  • Type of tissues or cells affected
  • Likelihood that part or all the tumor may be removed with surgery 
  • Spread of the cancer
  • Possibility that the cancer has spread beyond the brain or central nervous system

As with stages, there are specific criteria to define grades for different types of cancer. Below, find what the different grades mean in general.

  • GX (undetermined/grade cannot be assessed): A grade of GX means that a pathologist couldn’t distinguish the grade of the cancer cells from your biopsy or surgery.
  • G1 (low grade/well-differentiated): Low-grade tumors have cells and tissues that look very similar to normal cells and tissues in your body. These are likely to spread slowly.
  • G2 (intermediate grade/moderately differentiated): Intermediate-grade tumors have cells and tissues that look somewhat similar but show noticeable differences.
  • G3 (high grade/poorly differentiated) and G4 (high grade/undifferentiated): Both G3 and G4 tumors are considered high-grade tumors. The cells in these tumors look very different from normal tissue and are likely to grow and spread quickly.

Stage 2 cancer treatment options

In general, stage 2 cancers tend to be treated locally with surgery and/or radiation. At times, chemotherapy or other drug therapies may also be a part of stage 2 cancer treatment. Below, find stage 2 cancer treatment options for the five most common cancers.

Stage 2 breast cancer treatment: Stage 2 breast cancer tends to be most commonly treated with surgery—a lumpectomy or mastectomy—and radiation treatment afterward. During the surgery, doctors check the nearby lymph nodes for cancer, too. Most patients also have medication as part of their treatment plan: either chemotherapy, breast cancer targeted therapy, hormone therapy or a combination.

Stage 2 lung cancer treatment: Stage 2 lung cancer is typically treated with surgery. Some people may also have chemotherapy after surgery. For patients who can’t have surgery, radiation may be a treatment option.

Stage 2 prostate cancer treatment: For stage 2 prostate cancer, treatment depends on the patient’s symptoms, age and overall health. If the patient is older and isn’t experiencing symptoms, doctors may simply keep an eye on how the tumor is doing and treat it if there’s any drastic change. However, stage 2 cancers are more likely to spread without treatment than stage 1 cancers. Treatment options may include surgery, surgery followed by radiation, radiation only, or radiation with hormone therapy.

Stage 2 colorectal cancer treatment: Stage 2 colon cancer is most commonly treated with surgery to remove the part of the colon affected by cancer and to repair the colon. In general, chemotherapy isn’t recommended after stage 2 surgery. Clinical trials are studying the effects of chemotherapy after stage 2 colon cancer surgery to see whether it’s beneficial. Stage 2 rectal cancer treatment may include several steps, done in a different order for different people. A treatment plan for stage 2 rectal cancer may look like: chemotherapy and radiation (chemoradiation), then surgery, then chemotherapy again.

Stage 2 melanoma treatment: Stage 2 melanoma is typically treated with surgery. Additionally, doctors may do a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) to check for cancer in the nearby lymph nodes. If cancer is found, treatment may include immunotherapy or targeted therapy, or doctors may recommend monitoring the lymph nodes through regular ultrasounds before pursuing other treatment.

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