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Understanding Your Stage of Gallbladder Cancer

Stage is the word doctors use to describe the extent of a cancerous tumor as well as to describe whether or not it has spread to other organs. The first place cancer is found in your body is called the primary site or primary tumor. When a cancer spreads, it's said to have metastasized.

The TNM System

The TNM System is a standard system for describing the extent of a cancer's growth. The American Joint Committee on Cancer developed this system. Here's what the letters stand for in the TNM System:

  • T (tumor) refers to the extent of the tumor in the gallbladder and whether it has grown into nearby organs.

  • N (nodes) refers to whether lymph nodes in the area of the gallbladder have become cancerous.

  • M (metastasis) refers to whether the cancer has spread to other, distant organs in the body.

Your oncologist assigns numerical values from 0 to 4 to your T, N, and M categories. They're then combined to determine your overall disease stage in a process called stage grouping. Stage is expressed in Roman numerals from I (the earliest) to IV (the most advanced). The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. The higher the number, the more the cancer has spread.

Some doctors may also use other staging systems. One such system divides gallbladder cancer into 3 categories: localized, unresectable, and recurrent.

  • Localized means that all the cancer can be removed by surgery.

  • Unresectable indicates that all the cancer cannot be removed during an operation. This is often because the cancer has spread to and invaded other tissues or organs around the gallbladder, such as the lymph nodes, liver, pancreas, or intestines.

  • Recurrent means the cancer has come back after treatment.

A cancer diagnosis can be frightening news. The anxiety, combined with the doctor's use of unfamiliar words and phrases, can make office visits seem confusing and overwhelming. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recommends that you write down questions and bring a family member or a close friend with you to doctor's visits. These strategies will help ensure that your concerns and questions are clearly addressed and explained.