Cancer: understanding your results

Once you have your cancer test results, knowing what to ask can help you understand exactly what they mean.

Your cancer will have a certain grade. The grade of a cancer depends on what the cells look like under the microscope.

Cancer grades

In general, a lower grade indicates a slower-growing cancer and a higher grade indicates a faster-growing one. 

  • grade 1 – cancer cells resemble normal cells and aren't growing rapidly
  • grade 2 – cancer cells have features between grades 1 and 3; they don't look like normal cells but are growing somewhat faster than normal cells
  • grade 3 – cancer cells look more abnormal and may grow or spread more aggressively

Cancer stages

The stage of a cancer describes the size of a tumour and how far it has spread from where it started. Your doctor will discuss what the stage of your cancer means for you.

Below is an example of staging that the clinic may use:

  • stage 0 – the tumour is where it started and is not spreading
  • stage 1 – the tumour is less than 2cm and is not spreading
  • stage 2 – the tumour is 2-5cm (and may or may not affect the lymph nodes) and is not spreading
  • stage 3 – the tumour is more than 5cm, or any size but fixed to the chest wall, muscle or skin, or has spread to lymph nodes above the collarbone
  • stage 4 – the tumour is any size; it may affect the lymph nodes but has definitely spread to other parts of the body

Useful questions

If you are diagnosed with cancer, you'll probably have some questions for your doctor. Jean Slocombe, Cancer Research UK's cancer information nurse, suggests some things you might want to ask: 

  • What stage is my cancer?
  • What sort of treatment do I need? Cancer can be treated in a variety of different ways.   
  • Do I have any treatment options and where can I find information about the different treatments? Sometimes there's a choice of treatments (such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy). You might want to ask whether there's a specialist nurse you can talk things through with.
  • When can I expect to start treatment and what side effects might I have?
  • What is the treatment going to achieve? Is it likely to cure the cancer or will it slow down the growth of the cancer and lessen symptoms?
  • Is there someone at the hospital I can contact if I feel unwell before or after treatment, or do I need to contact my GP?
  • Is there someone at the hospital who can advise me about things such as benefits? Aside from the cancer diagnosis, there are often practical issues that need to be sorted out, such as financial matters.

Write down questions as they occur to you and take these with you when you go to see your doctor.


Marie Curie Cancer Care has useful information on preparing for GP appointments.

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Page last reviewed: 06/12/2013

Next review due: 06/12/2015


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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

want2knowmore said on 24 January 2011

I am scratching my head over the Grade 1 definition... does it mean that people can tell if a cancer is a cancer cell, but a cancer cell can looks like a normal cell? How do people work out if a normal looking cell is a cancer cell or not? Is that possible?

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