What Are the Stages of Throat Cancer?

Staging is the term oncologists use to define where throat cancer is located and how much it has spread. Once the stage of throat cancer is determined, your physician can recommend a particular course of treatment.

Full extent of the cancer as assessed by clinical evaluation and imaging studies determines the stage of the cancer. Stage of the cancer can be a guide to prognosis (outlook for cure). Early stage cancers can often be treated by single modality such as surgery or radiation while more advanced stage tumors may require combination therapy.

Most cancer teams use the system developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer, known as the TNM staging system.

T = Tumor: Where is the primary tumor and how large is it?

N = Nodes: Has the tumor spread to nearby lymph nodes?

M = Metastasis: Has cancer spread to other parts of the body?

For each letter, there are five numbered stages, from 0 to 4, depending on how much the cancer has spread. The lower the number, the more the cancer cells look like normal cells and the easier they are to treat and cure. A higher number means it has spread more deeply.

The place where cancer originates is called the primary site. Cancer can spread from the primary site to other parts of the body. It’s important to understand that even if throat cancer is found in other parts of your body, it’s still considered throat cancer. For instance, if colon cancer has spread to the liver, it’s called metastatic colon cancer, not liver cancer.

Be sure to talk to your physician about your particular stage of cancer and how that will impact your treatment.

For more information about the stages of throat cancer, please visit our Health Library.

How curable is oropharyngeal cancer? 

Cancer of the oropharynx is highly curable.  The outlook for cure is superior for patients who have the type of oropharynx cancer that is caused by HPV.