Different types of cancer spread at different speeds. Additionally, the rate at which cancer spreads may depend on its grade and stage.

This article discusses how fast cancer spreads in more detail. It explores how cancer spreads, how cancer grading works, and the stages and treatment of cancer.

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There are over 100 different types of cancer. Scientists typically name these types based on where in the body they form. Cancer may spread at different rates and into various parts of a person’s body. It occurs as a result of cells growing uncontrollably and spreading into surrounding tissues.

If a person’s cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, doctors describe it as metastatic. They may also refer to it as stage 4 cancer. Healthcare professionals call the process of cancer spreading metastasis.

In metastasis, cancer cells grow and then break away from where they first formed. They travel around a person’s body in the blood and lymphatic system to other locations, where they may grow and form new tumors in the surrounding tissues. Metastatic cancer cells can also stay inactive for years at new locations before growing.

It is important to note that staging systems for certain cancers, such as leukemias and lymphomas, which doctors refer to as hematologic malignancies, differ from staging for solid organ tumors, which this article focuses on.

Doctors grade a person’s cancer by analyzing some of their cells under a microscope. Most often, doctors study a sample of tissue from a person’s tumor. Then, they decide if the tumor is cancerous, and if so, its grade.

In cancers that spread and grow more slowly, known as low grade cancers, the cells may appear similar to typical noncancer cells. Conversely, the cells appear abnormal in cancers that spread more aggressively — higher grade cancers.

Doctors may also describe tumors as well-differentiated if they look similar to typical body tissues. These tumors tend to spread slowly.

In contrast, poorly differentiated or undifferentiated tumors look abnormal, unlike typical body tissues. These tumors tend to spread quickly.

Different types of tumors can have different grading systems. However, doctors grade most tumors with a numbered system, as outlined in the table below.

Grade numberGrade descriptionDifferentiation
1Low gradeWell-differentiated
2Intermediate gradeModerately differentiated
3High gradePoorly differentiated
4High gradeUndifferentiated

If doctors cannot grade a tumor, they may describe it as grade X, or an undetermined grade.

According to Cancer Research UK, since higher grade cancers may grow and spread more quickly, they usually need faster or more intensive treatments.

Additionally, grades help healthcare professionals plan treatment and predict possible outcomes for some types of cancer, such as:

The stage of a person’s cancer refers to its location and if it has spread. Doctors determine a cancer’s stage by finding out how much cancer is in a person’s body. This can include how large a tumor is.

By working out the stage of a person’s cancer, healthcare professionals can determine the best treatment options for a person, based on the severity of their condition.

There are several systems used by doctors to describe a cancer’s stage. In the TNM system, doctors assign numbers after three categories of letters:

  • T, tumor: This refers to the size of a person’s tumor.
  • N, node: This indicates whether the cancer has spread to any nearby lymph nodes.
  • M, metastasis: This indicates if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

The numbers after these letters indicate the degree of spread and other information, with higher numbers indicating larger tumors or further spread.

For many cancers, once doctors determine values for T, N, and M, they combine them to assign an overall stage:

  • Stage 0: The cancer has not spread from where it started.
  • Stage 1: The cancer is small and has not grown into nearby tissues or spread to other parts of the body.
  • Stage 2: The cancer has grown but not spread.
  • Stage 3: The cancer has grown larger and may have spread to surrounding lymph nodes and other tissues but not to other parts of the body.
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread from where it started to at least one other organ.

Learn more about the stages of cancer.

The treatments a healthcare professional recommends will depend on the type of cancer a person has and how advanced it is. Some examples include:

  • chemotherapy, which uses medications to destroy cancer cells
  • surgery to remove tumors and sometimes, surrounding tissues
  • immunotherapy, which is a treatment that helps a person’s immune system attack cancer cells
  • photodynamic therapy, which uses light-activated drugs to destroy cancer cells
  • radiation therapy, which uses high doses of radiation to eliminate cancer cells and shrink tumors
  • hormone therapy, which uses medications to slow or stop the growth of cancers that use hormones to grow
  • targeted therapy, which uses therapies that target proteins that control how cancer cells grow, divide, and spread
  • hyperthermia, in which doctors heat specific body tissues to destroy cancer cells

Cancer spreads to other parts of the body in a process that doctors call metastasis. During this process, cancer cells break away from the original tumor and travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. They then form new tumors in other parts of the body.

The rate at which a person’s cancer spreads may depend on its type, grade, and stage. Higher grade tumors tend to spread faster than lower ones. Additionally, the higher the cancer’s stage, the further it has spread.

Doctors may use several types of treatment to treat a person’s cancer, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. A person can speak with a healthcare professional to find out more about the cancer grading and staging system and how it may impact treatment approaches.