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Colon cancer stages are based on four specific factors: how large a tumor is, whether cancer is detected in the lymph nodes, whether cancer has spread to nearby tissues and how the cancer cells appear when viewed under a microscope. These factors are evaluated separately, and then the individual assessments are combined into a single score. Stages range from 0 to 4; lower stages indicate less invasive cancers.

The stages of colon cancer are described as follows:

    • Stage 0 colon cancer is limited to the lining of the colon. The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes or nearby tissues.
    • Stage 1 colon cancer is limited to the lining of the colon and the connective tissues beneath the colon’s mucous membrane. The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes or surrounding tissues.
    • Stage 2 colon cancer has spread through the various layers of the colon and possibly to nearby tissues, but has not reached the lymph nodes or distant organs.
    • Stage 3 colon cancer has grown past the colon and has started to spread to the lymph nodes and surrounding tissues. The cancer has not reached distant organs.
    • Stage 4 colon cancer (also known as metastatic colon cancer) is present in one or more organs other than the colon. The primary tumor can be any size and lymph nodes may or may not be involved.

stages of colon cancer

What is metastatic colon cancer?

As was noted above, metastatic colon cancer is the same thing as Stage 4 colon cancer. Both of these terms refer to an advanced-stage malignancy that developed in the colon and then spread (metastasized) to distant areas of the body. Although colon cancer can metastasize to any area of the body, it’s most likely to spread to the lungs or liver. Other common areas of metastasis include the brain, the peritoneum (the lining within the abdominal cavity) and distant lymph nodes.

While early-stage colon cancer tends to not produce any noticeable symptoms, more advanced colon cancer may cause:

  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Metastatic colon cancer can also cause symptoms to develop in the area of the body that the cancer spread to:

  • Lungs – Colon cancer that has metastasized to the lungs may cause chronic coughing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and chest pain.
  • Liver – Colon cancer that has metastasized to the liver may cause jaundice, swelling in the extremities, midsection bloating, nausea and fatigue.
  • Brain – Colon cancer that has metastasized to the brain may cause headaches, confusion, memory loss and blurred vision.
  • Lymph nodes – If colon cancer spreads to the lymph nodes within the midsection, it may cause a reduction in appetite as well as localized bloating and swelling.
  • Peritoneum – Colon cancer that has spread to the peritoneum may cause pain within the midsection, bloating, a feeling of fullness, unexpected weight gain and nausea.

Although colon cancer will have already reached the late stages before metastasizing, it’s still treatable. Many patients undergo some combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy to treat this condition. The course of treatment that’s right for someone will depend on factors such as the size of their tumor, where the cancer has spread to in their body, the type of treatment that they’ve already received and their overall condition.

How long does it take for colon cancer to develop?

Colon cancer generally develops from a collection of noncancerous (benign) cells (referred to as an adenomatous polyp). These cells typically do not become cancerous (malignant). However, when they do, the process usually takes about 10 to 15 years to complete. That’s why it’s so important for individuals with an average risk of colon cancer to undergo a colonoscopy once every 10 years after age 45.

Once colon cancer develops, it tends to progress slowly. However, this rate of progression depends on a number of factors, such as the tumor’s cellular makeup, the patient’s age and the patient’s overall health.

Colon cancer staging at Moffitt

The oncologists and pathologists at Moffitt Cancer Center work together to determine which of these stages most accurately represents a patient’s colon cancer. Staging information can then be used to decide which treatments offer the most promise for the patient. Staging is especially important when a patient receives treatment from several different oncologists, as is the case here at Moffitt, as the stages provide a standardized way to communicate information about the extent of the tumor to each member of the patient’s treatment team.

The expert oncologists at Moffitt Cancer Center can provide additional information about the stages of colon cancer, as well as a more detailed explanation of how a cancer's stage might influence a treatment plan. Call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. When you do, you can expect to be quickly connected to a cancer expert . We know how important it is to begin planning for treatment as soon as possible, which is why we're so pleased to offer this rapid turnaround time.