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Cancer Staging: What Does It Mean, and Does It Matter?

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Published on February 23, 2020

Key Takeaways

What stage am I?”  is one of the first things newly diagnosed breast cancer patients want to know, but how much does your stage really matter? Expert Dr. Frederic Kass, from the Ridley Tree Cancer Center, explains how staging is used today and why your stage doesn’t matter as much as you may think. Watch now to hear an expert perspective.

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Transcript | Cancer Staging: What Does It Mean, and Does It Matter?

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Andrea Hutton:       

Hello, I’m Andrea Hutton from Patient Power, and I’m very happy to be here today with Dr. Fred Kass, who is the Director of Medical Oncology at the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center in Santa Barbara, California. Dr. Kass.

Dr. Kass:                   

I’m happy to be here. 

Andrea Hutton:       

Thank you so much for talking to us. So, I want to start, because you’re an oncologist who sees patients all the time. And they come, they sit down in your office, and they’re coming to you because they either have been diagnosed, or you’re about to diagnose them with breast cancer. So, first of all, what’s the history of staging? People always ask me, "You had cancer, What stage was it or is it?” Why do I care?

Dr. Kass:                   

Well, it’s good that you asked because if patients themselves don’t—if that’s not one of the first questions they think of, their friends and family will call them up and ask them what stage they are. And it’s very challenging, because on the one hand, we do use staging sometimes to categorize, to make good treatment decisions, to figure out how much treatment people need. We want to give them enough to fix the problem, but not more than people really need.

On the other hand, there are so many things about the staging system that are not really reflective of where cancer treatment can go, don’t really adequately alert patients to what the challenges are, may make them feel that it’s less fixable than it really is, because it's not stage I. And the fact of the matter is that we have the capability of fixing the disease in some respects, if we’re fortunate enough, no matter what the stage is.

So, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, is when patients ask, of course, I tell them. But I really try to spend a lot of time putting staging in perspective, so it doesn’t define. We just don’t want patients to allow the staging system to define them.

Andrea Hutton:       

So, it’s less important, too, than it used to be.

Dr. Kass:                   

Much less important than it used to be. Still important, but no, we don’t characterize—when I first started training, patients who were stage I did not get treatment after surgery. Patients who were stage II and III did get treatment after surgery. That hasn’t been true in decades. So, no, we don’t have the same hard-and-fast rules. And right now, we’re really as much interested or more interested in biology and what makes the DNA of these cancer cells tick. And that, actually, becomes something that we focus on, in many respects, much more than stage.

Andrea Hutton:       

Thank you for clearing up a lot of these questions that I had.

Dr. Kass:                   

All right.

Andrea Hutton:       

And for giving us a lot of knowledge and hope, as well. 

Dr. Kass:                   

All right, well, thank you for including me.

Andrea Hutton:       

Thank you so much for coming.        

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

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