The Four Stages of Cancer Redefined

Once people know that you have cancer some will reveal that they too have - or had - cancer.  While it is comforting to be reminded that you are not alone in this, the conversation sometimes evolves into them explaining what a harrowing experience they’ve had.

This can be dangerous territory if the person moves too rapidly into their story without first understanding the basics of yours.  I’ve listened to a number of people declare that they too are in the Cancer Club and then describe in great detail the suspicious mole removed from their forehead.

This is like being introduced  to Joe “who was in the Army too” and then attempting to bond over the tough duty you endured while playing tuba in the Army band.  If Joe is missing a limb, you may want to dial it back.

The point is that not all cancer is equal.  I don't mean to sound harsh, but it's true.

Doctors use stages to describe cancer:

    • Stage 0 - Abnormal cells with the potential to become cancer.
    • Stage I - Cancer is small in only in one area.
    • Stage II - Cancer is larger and has grown into nearby tissue or lymph nodes.
    • Stage III - Cancer is even larger and grown more extensively into tissue or lymph nodes.
    • Stage IV - Cancer has spread more widely to other parts of your body.

For those who are new to the Cancer Club - or have only experienced the early stages - here’s how to interpret your doctor’s staging when speaking to others in the club:

    • Stage 0 - Best to be quiet. 
    • Stage I - OK, you’re in the club.  Nice job detecting it early.  The treatment may have seemed tough but was probably a small surgery and perhaps a bit of chemo. While there’s some risk here, the odds are very much in your favor so you can consider the bullet dodged.
    • Stage II - You still have caught it early but are right to be concerned because some bad cells are on the loose.  Your treatment is likely more burdensome but you still have good odds.  You are justified in looking over your shoulder, but don’t dwell on it.
    • Stage III - Uh-Oh…your are now a full member of the club eligible for all the activities: radiation, surgery, chemo.  This next year is going to suck but you’ll get through it.  Afterwards, enjoy life but know that you may get another knock on your door.  
    • Stage IV - You are in for a fight.  At this point, you may already have been through years of treatment and are worn out...but not so much that you can’t punch a stage-0 person who insists on telling you their mole story.
Obviously any cancer diagnosis is bad.  And it's especially scary for you and your family in the early days as you try to figure out: "How bad is this?"  So I don't mean to make light of that.  

But, over time, you will get perspective that helps you think about your cancer and how your situation relates to fellow Cancer Club members.