Stages of Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Aman Priya Khanna
Written by Rajath R Prabhu, last updated on 3 November 2023| min read
Stages of Breast Cancer

Quick Summary

  • Breast cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the cells of the breast.
  • The breast cancer stages are a critical factor in determining the best treatment options and the overall prognosis for the patient.
  • The TNM staging breast cancer system is a tool that helps to describe multiple breast cancer stages.

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the cells of the breast. In the 1990s, this was fourth on the list of most commonly diagnosed cancers in India, and now it is topping the list. In 2020, there were about 2.3 million breast cancer cases, representing about 11.5% of the total cancer cases. 

The breast cancer stages are a critical factor in determining the best treatment options and the overall prognosis for the patient. Based on clinical and pathological tests, the cancer is categorised into separate stages.

However, multiple breast cancer stages can be easily described with the help of a tool called the TNM staging breast cancer system. Continue reading this blog to understand the stages of breast cancer and the TNM staging system.

Staging of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease affecting millions of people worldwide. Breast cancer is staged to determine the extent and severity of the disease.

The stage of breast cancer is based on the size and location of the tumour, whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. 

The most commonly used staging system for breast cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM staging breast cancer system, which stands for Tumor, Node, and Metastasis.

The TNM staging system helps to assign a stage to the breast cancer, ranging from stage 0 to stage IV and determine the best treatment options and the prognosis for the patient.

  1. Tumour (T): The T category describes the size and location of the tumour. When assessing for the T category, the doctor has to answer the following questions:
    1. What is the size of the primary breast tumour? 
    2. What are the biomarkers of cancer?
  2. Node (N): The N category describes whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. The following questions need to be answered by the doctor for the N category.
    1. Has the primary tumour dispersed to the nearby lymph nodes? If yes, where has it spread?
    2. What is the size of the tumour?
    3. How many tumours are there?
  3. Metastasis (M): The M category describes whether the cancer has spread to other body parts. The doctor needs to answer
    1. Has the carcinoma spread to other body parts? 
    2. Which parts or organ systems has it spread to?

In addition to the TNM staging breast cancer system, the results obtained from the biopsy tests and scans are combined to determine a person's cancer stage. This staging that is done can be either clinical or pathological. The clinical staging is done based on the test results obtained in the pre-testing phase. It includes

  1. Physical examinations
  2. MRI scans
  3. Mammogram
  4. Ultrasound
  5. Pathological staging is done based on what is found during breast and lymph node removal surgery. It is the most accurate method to procure a patient's prognosis information, and these results are generally available for some days post-surgery.

Book Consultation

Breast Cancer Stages

There are five stages of breast cancer, depending upon the severity and advancement of the illness. They have been enumerated as 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4, where stage 0 is the least lethal form, and stage 4 is the fatal form of breast cancer. The doctors use this system to suggest the necessary treatment. 

Stage 0 Breast Cancer

It signifies the beginning of the disease. It is also called ‘Ductal Carcinoma In Situ’ (DCIS), the non-invasive form or pre-cancer stage. 

  1. In stage 0, no evidence exists that abnormal cancer cells have invaded neighbouring tissues. 
  2. Zero-stage breast cancer is primarily detected through a mammogram followed by a biopsy. 
  3. It can be treated with the help of a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. Sometimes radiation therapy is also used.

Stage 1 Breast Cancer

Stage 1 is the second stage. In this breast cancer stage, the cancer is still very early, but it is invasive at this point. The tumour cells spread to the surrounding tissues in the breast but are restricted to a small area. This stage can further be divided into two parts — stage 1A and stage 1B. 

  1. In stage 1A, the tumour measures up to 20 millimetres and is about a grape's size. However, cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes. 
  2. Stage 1B resembles stage 1A but has small cancer cell clusters.

Stage 2 Breast Cancer

In Stage 2, the cancer cells grow larger, and the lymph nodes may or may not contain cancer cells. This stage can is further divided into two sub-stages:

  1. In stage 2A, the cancer size is up to 20 millimetres, and it has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm, or the tumour could even range between 20 and 50 millimetres but not spread to the lymph nodes. 
  2. In stage 2B, the tumour could have spread to three lymph nodes or even increased beyond 50 millimetres.

Stage 3 Breast Cancer

In stage 3 breast cancer, the tumour has increased and spread further into the breast region. 

  1. It can be found in four to nine lymph nodes or is bigger than 50 millimetres (Stage 3A). 
  2. In the next stage, 3B, a tumour spreads to the chest wall behind the breast in the skin, causing an ulcerated wound followed by swelling or inflammation near the breast bones. 
  3. In stage 3C, cancer might have spread to ten or more lymph nodes near the collarbone and into the skin.

Stage 4 Breast Cancer

Stage 4 is the last and most advanced breast cancer stage. At this stage, cancer has metastasised to nearby lymph nodes and organs like the liver, brain, lungs or bones. When first diagnosed, breast cancer could be in stage IV itself or recurrence.

Breast Cancer Staging Chart

Here is a general chart outlining the different stages of breast cancer and their characteristics:

Stage of Breast Cancer Tumour size and location Condition of lymph nodes
Stage 0 Breast Cancer Extremely small lump in the breast No spread of breast cancer
Stage 1 Breast Cancer Tumour size <= 20 mm Breast cancer does not spread to the lymph nodes
Stage 2 Breast Cancer 20 mm<=Tumour size <= 50 mm May or may not have spread in 1 or 2 lymph nodes
Stage 3 Breast Cancer Tumour size >= 50 mm Spread in 4 to 9 lymph nodes, especially near the collarbone and skin
Stage 4 Breast Cancer Tumour size can be of any size and much greater than 50 mm Spread in all nearby lymph nodes

How do the Stages of Breast Cancer Impact Treatment Options?

The breast cancer stages at the time of diagnosis play a crucial role in determining the most appropriate treatment options. The line of treatment for different breast cancer stages does not have too many differences.

Usually, the treatment for different breast cancer stages involves surgery and treatment through medicinal or targeted drug therapies. The below list provides the treatment options as per the stages of breast cancer: 

  1. Stage 0 breast cancer: Treatment options for DCIS typically include surgery to remove the affected tissue, such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy, and in some cases, radiation therapy.
  2. Stage 1 breast cancer: Treatment options for stage I breast cancer typically includes surgery to remove the tumour, followed by radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy or targeted therapy to reduce the risk of recurrence.
  3. Stage 2 breast cancer: Treatment options for stage II breast cancer may include surgery to remove the tumour, followed by radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. Depending on the case's specifics, hormone therapy or targeted therapy may also be recommended.
  4. Stage 3 breast cancer: Treatment options for stage III breast cancer may include Neoadjuvant therapy, surgery (lumpectomy/mastectomy), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy.
  5. Stage 4 breast cancer: Treatment options for stage IV breast cancer typically focus on managing symptoms and improving quality of life. These may include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and other palliative care measures.

Importance of Early Detection and Diagnosis

Early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer are crucial in increasing the chances of successful treatment, helping a woman with the best chances of surviving the disease and improving long-term outcomes.

Here are some of the key reasons why early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer are so important:

  1. Improved treatment options: When breast cancer is detected and diagnosed early, a broader range of treatment options are available, including less invasive and more targeted treatments. This can help to reduce the need for more aggressive treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy.
  2. Better chances of survival: Early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer can significantly improve the chances of survival. According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected and treated at an early stage, the five-year survival rate is close to 100%.
  3. Reduced need for more extensive treatment: When breast cancer is not detected and diagnosed until later stages, more extensive treatment may be required, including mastectomy or removal of the breast. Early detection can help to reduce the need for these more invasive procedures.
  4. Improved quality of life: Early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer can help to reduce anxiety and uncertainty and enable patients to start treatment as soon as possible. This can improve the quality of life and reduce the emotional and physical impact of the disease.

Delayed cancer care reduces the probability of surviving the onslaught and more significant complications and involves higher care costs.


In conclusion, all we can say is — being aware of the breast cancer stages will enable anyone to take care of himself/herself or his/her loved ones and ensure that the disease is detected early so that the treatment is initiated first and foremost.

Additionally, a person will be well-equipped to handle such a delicate scenario and, thus, can avoid panicking. If a person sees any symptoms, then it is wise to consult the doctor at the earliest.

And, if the doctor recommends surgery and the person has any queries regarding that, then the experts of HexaHealth are here to help. We have a team of experts who will guide the querier through the whole process and help find the best possible option for treatment. So, one doesn’t need to run around to find solutions for his/her loved ones anymore and can just contact at HexaHealth.

Frequently Asked Questions

There are five breast cancer stages – Stage 0, Stage I, Stage II, Stage III and Stage IV (in order of ascending severity), with stage 0 being the earliest and most treatable stage and stage IV being the most advanced and challenging to treat.
The TNM system is the most widely used staging system for breast cancer, ranging from stage 0 to stage IV. It stands for Tumor, Node, and Metastasis, and is used to describe the size and spread of cancer.
Stage 4 breast cancer, or metastatic breast cancer, is not considered curable. However, with advances in treatments, many people can live for many years with stage 4 breast cancer. The goal of treatment for stage 4 breast cancer is to control the growth and spread of cancer, relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
Stage 2 breast cancers are treated with partial mastectomy, complete mastectomy, or lumpectomy with an Axillary Lymph Node Dissection (ALND) or a Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy (SLNB). Depending on the patient’s current condition, the doctor decides which is the best option for him/her.
On average, the size of the primary breast cancer tumours doubles every 180 days, or it could happen about every 6 months. This depends on the type of cancer and the individual’s current health condition. 
Although the chances are very slim, it isn't unheard of. The 10-year survival rate of a stage 4 breast cancer patient is around 13%. With continuous treatment and dedicated care, one can survive for a considerable time with stage 4 breast cancer.
Stage 3 breast cancer is severe, as it is not a localised tumour anymore; it has spread to the nearby lymph nodes and is progressing rapidly to stage 4. In such cases, the patient needs immediate treatment to avoid further health damage.
Till breast cancer stage 3, it is survivable. In the fourth stage, the chances of survival recede further. However, there have been cases where patients have recovered. After diagnosis and appropriate treatment, the chances of survival are 28%.
Breast cancer usually spreads in the breast region and heads towards the lymph nodes. After that, the span of cancer increases and ultimately, it reaches the Metastasis stage, i.e. the spreading of cancerous cells to other areas.
The usual signs or symptoms of breast cancer are a lump/swelling under the armpit and swelling in the arm or hand, called lymphedema. There could also be swelling in the breastbone region or the area of the collarbone.
Triple-negative breast cancer or HER2-negative breast cancer is the most likely and the fastest to spread. However, if diagnosed early, the treatment can prevent that and helps patients to recover.
Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS), which is the presence of abnormal cells inside the milk duct is the most curable type of breast cancer. It can be curbed easily with the help of surgery, chemotherapy and targeted drug therapy.
Since it is rare and aggressive, triple-negative breast cancer is the most challenging form to treat. However, if detected early, the patient can still survive for a longer period with the right treatment.
From stage 1 to stage 3, each stage could require a mastectomy. Mastectomy is unavoidable after stage 0 breast cancer, as it requires the removal of breast tissue to prevent further or treat the infection.
If breast cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, then it has more chance of metastasising, so the treatment is extremely aggressive at this stage. Therefore, it is ideal to consult a doctor before this spreads further inside the body.
After spreading to the lymph nodes, there is a chance that this could be an advanced stage, probably stage 2 or stage 3. The five-year stage 2 survival rate is 99%, and the stage 3 survival rate is 86%. 
If a person remains in complete remission for 5-plus years, then some doctors might consider him/her cancer-free. However, make sure he/she has completed the course of treatment and a doctor has certified it.

Updated on : 3 November 2023

Disclaimer: The information provided here is for educational and learning purposes only. It doesn't cover every medical condition and might not be relevant to your personal situation. This information isn't medical advice, isn't meant for diagnosing any condition, and shouldn't replace talking to a certified medical or healthcare professional.


Dr. Aman Priya Khanna

Dr. Aman Priya Khanna

MBBS, DNB General Surgery, Fellowship in Minimal Access Surgery, FIAGES

12 Years Experience

Dr Aman Priya Khanna is a well-known General Surgeon, Proctologist and Bariatric Surgeon currently associated with HealthFort Clinic, Health First Multispecialty Clinic in Delhi. He has 12 years of experience in General Surgery and worke...View More


Rajath R Prabhu

Rajath R Prabhu

MSc. Clinical Research I PG Diploma in Public Health Services Management

3 Years Experience

His work in medical content writing and proofreading is noteworthy. He has also contributed immensely to public health research and has authored four scientific manuscripts in international journals. He was assoc...View More

Expert Doctors

Dr. Akshay Tiwari

Cancer Care / Oncology

16+ Years




Dr. Stuti Gupta

Surgical Oncology

10+ Years




NABH Accredited Hospitals

BH Salvas Hospital

BH Salvas Hospital

4.89/5( Ratings)
Chandan Palace
CDAS Super Speciality Hospital

CDAS Super Speciality Hospital

4.55/5( Ratings)
Malibu Town

Book Consultation

Latest Health Articles