After a diagnosis of head and neck cancer is confirmed, staging is performed to determine the extent and spread of the tumor, which are important considerations when evaluating a patient’s treatment options. Before assigning a stage to a cancerous lesion, a physician will typically evaluate information collected from a series of diagnostic tests, such as imaging scans, blood tests, biopsies and physical examinations. At Moffitt Cancer Center, this process is performed collaboratively by a multispecialty team of experts. To ensure the best possible treatment, we provide each patient with the benefit of multiple expert opinions in a single location without referrals.
To be useful, cancer staging must be accurate, consistent and reproducible. For head and neck cancer staging, the Moffitt team often uses the TNM (tumor, node, metastasis) classification system, which was developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer. The TNM system evaluates three key factors:
- The size and location of the primary tumor (“T”)
- Whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (“N”)
- Whether the cancer has metastasized to other areas of the body (“M”)
Based on a patient’s test results, the experts at Moffitt will assign a number to each of these categories. The numbers can range from zero to four, with higher numbers indicating more extensive cancers. The TNM values are then viewed collectively to determine an overall cancer stage. These stages are unique to the specific type of head or neck cancer present.
The TNM staging system provides a standard “language” that physicians can use to help manage the treatment of patients with head and neck cancers. It is important for patients to remember that this information should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, it is best understood with the guidance of a physician who can clearly explain how the numbers apply to a specific patient’s unique circumstances.
It is also essential to keep in mind that the prognosis for a patient with head or neck cancer is usually very good when the cancer is detected early and managed properly. At Moffitt, our patient outcomes consistently outrank the national average and our patients have high-quality lives.