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Stages of Colorectal Cancer

Staging is the process of assessing whether the cancer has spread and how far it has spread. Your treatment and the outlook for your recovery depend on the stage of your cancer.

There is more than one system for staging colon or rectal cancer, but any system used describes how far the cancer has spread through the layers of the wall of the colon or rectum. The stage also indicates whether the cancer has spread to nearby organs or distant organs.

There are four basic stages of colorectal cancer:

Stage I: The cancer is present in the inner lining of the bowel but has not spread to the muscle layer of the bowel.

Stage II: The cancer has spread to the inner lining and the muscular wall of the bowel, but not to nearby tissues or organs.

Stage III: The cancer has spread through the bowel and into adjacent tissue or organs. This may include nearby lymph nodes.

Stage IV: The cancer has spread to distant organs.

When talking about the prognosis of cancer at a certain stage and developing a treatment plan, doctors often talk about five-year survival rates. For example, for Stage I cancers, which are very curable, the five-year survival rate is around 93 percent. This means that 93 percent of patients with Stage I cancer survive for five or more years. For Stage II cancers, where the cancer is localized to the bowel, the five-year survival rate ranges from 72 to 85 percent. Stage III cancers have spread through the bowel wall and may involve the lymph nodes, making the success of treatment more difficult to predict. The fewer lymph nodes affected, the better the prognosis. The five-year survival rate ranges from 30 to 67 percent. Stage IV cancers, which have spread to distant organs, may be partially controlled through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation; however, the five-year survival rate may be less than 10 percent.

These figures emphasize the importance of screening so cancers can be detected early, when treatment is more effective.

When looking at these survival rates, it is important to keep in mind that

  • these statistics can only give you a general idea of the survival rate of people with cancer at a similar stage but they cannot tell you what your personal chances for remission are.

  • the people represented in these statistics were diagnosed more than five years ago. Any new developments in cancer treatment won’t affect the survival statistics for at least five years.

  • the survival rates in Canada, for both men and women, continue to improve each year. This is likely due to more cancers being found at an early stage and to improved treatments, especially chemotherapy.

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital