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Staging and prognosis of head and neck cancers


Tests show whether you have a head and neck cancer and whether it has spread. Working out how far the cancer has spread is called staging. It helps your health care team recommend the best treatment for you.

In Australia, the TNM system is the method most often used for staging head and neck cancers. TNM stands for tumour–nodes–metastasis. In this system, each letter is assigned a number to describe the cancer.

Based on the TNM numbers, the doctor then works out the cancer’s overall stage (I–IV). Each head and neck cancer is staged slightly differently. In general, in stages I–II the cancer is small and hasn’t spread from the primary site (early head and neck cancer). In stages III–IV the cancer is larger and has spread to other parts of the body or the lymph nodes (advanced head and neck cancer).  If you are finding it hard to understand staging, ask someone in your health care team to explain it in a way that makes sense to you.


Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for anyone to predict the exact course of the disease. Instead, your doctor can give you an idea about the general prognosis for people with the same type and stage of cancer.

To work out your prognosis, your doctor will consider:

  • your test results
  • the type of head and neck cancer
  • the tumour’s HPV status
  • the rate and depth of tumour growth
  • the likelihood of response to treatment
  • other factors such as your age, level of fitness and overall health.

These factors will also help your doctor advise you on the best treatment options. Usually the earlier head and neck cancer is diagnosed, the better the outcome, but people with more advanced head and neck cancer may also respond well to treatment.