Doctors stage mesothelioma according to factors that indicate its progression. The mesothelioma stages range from Stage 1 (most treatable) to Stage 4 (fewest options). The system for staging is different for each primary type of mesothelioma.
Written by Jenna Campagna, RN
How Doctors Determine Your Stage
Diagnosing a stage involves tests to determine how advanced your mesothelioma is after discovering it. This is accomplished through conducting a CT scan, PET scan or other surgical diagnostic methods.
These tests allow doctors to see if the mesothelioma has spread beyond the point of origin. The spread of this cancer is known as mesothelioma metastasis and it’s important in staging.
The Basics of Mesothelioma Stages
The primary factor in how doctors stage mesothelioma is the level of metastasis. Mesothelioma forms primarily in one of two protective linings: the pleura (which separates the chest wall and lung cavity) or the peritoneum (which covers the abdominal cavity). The stages advance as the cancer moves further from these original sites.
If you have mesothelioma, knowing the stage is vital to determining your best treatment plan. The different stages provide boundaries for physicians as they recommend treatment options. You should always seek a second opinion, which may lead to a lower mesothelioma stage and more opportunities for treatment.
Pleural Mesothelioma Stages
Pleural mesothelioma stages are classified from stage 1 to stage 4. Stage 1 pleural mesothelioma is localized in the pleura. As the cancer spreads farther away from its point of origin, the pleural mesothelioma stages advance.
There are three staging systems used for pleural mesothelioma. The outline below will follow the Tumor, Node, Metastasis (TNM) Staging System.
Similar to Stage 1, this stage is split into 3A and 3B. The TNM system differentiates the two by how far the cancer has spread. While still considered localized metastasis, stage 3B often is more challenging to treat with surgery.
Peritoneal Mesothelioma Stages
Peritoneal mesothelioma staging involves a different system than the one for pleural mesothelioma. Peritoneal mesothelioma rarely involves metastasis to lymph nodes, so doctors don’t rely on that characteristic for staging. They instead look at the extent of the tumors in the abdominal cavity and follow the peritoneal cancer index (PCI).
The peritoneal cancer index is the primary staging system for peritoneal mesothelioma. It applies a score based on how far the cancer has spread within the abdomen.
13 Sections of the Abominal Cavity
The PCI scores on a range of 0-39, with each of the 13 sections of the abdomen receiving a score between 0 and 3. If a section has no signs of mesothelioma, it receives a 0 score. If the section is overrun with tumors, then it receives a 3.
Some doctors simplify the PCI for patients’ understanding by correlating a score to one of the four pleural mesothelioma stages:
PCI OF 1-10
PCI OF 11-20
PCI OF 21-30
PCI OF 31-39
The lower the PCI score, the more treatment options are available. However, you should always receive a second opinion after your initial diagnosis.
Mesothelioma survivor Alexis K. was originally diagnosed with late-stage peritoneal mesothelioma. Her cancer was considered inoperable. A second opinion revealed a less-advanced stage. Alexis underwent curative surgery and as of 2020, she has survived for 12 years and counting.
The three common systems used for staging pleural mesothelioma are the TNM, Butchart and Brigham. The primary staging system for peritoneal mesothelioma is the PCI.
The TNM Staging System is used the most. It is a four-stage system developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) and the International Union for Cancer Control (IUCC).
It evaluates three aspects of the cancer: the tumors’ size (T), lymph node involvement (N) and metastasis (M). Each aspect receives a classification to help doctors stage the disease.
THE T CATEGORY
The T category considers whether mesothelioma tumors grew within the pleural space and invaded nearby tissue:
- TX means the tumors cannot be measured.
- T0 means the tumors can’t be found.
- T1, T2, T3 and T4 measure the tumors’ collective size and where the cancer has spread.
THE N CATEGORY
The N category focuses on lymph nodes:
- NX means lymph node involvement can’t be evaluated.
- N0 means there is no lymph node involvement.
- N1, N2 and N3 are classifications when lymph node involvement occurs, with numbers ranging in how many are affected and how much they’ve swollen.
THE M CATEGORY
The M category focuses on metastasis to other areas of the body:
- M0 means no metastasis has occurred (the disease remains local).
- M1 means the mesothelioma has spread to distant organs or tissues.
The AJCC and IUCC update the TNM Staging protocol every six or eight years as cancer research and treatment evolves. The system was last updated in 2018 to include stage 1A and stage 1B.
Developed by Dr. Eric Butchart in 1976, the Butchart System is the oldest system for determining the stage of a mesothelioma case. It consists of four stages and focuses on the size of the tumors, rather than the number of cancer cells and tumors that have formed, or where they’ve spread.
Dr. David Sugarbaker, who passed away in 2018, developed the Brigham Staging System while working at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. This system focuses on whether surgery is an option for the patient. It is a four-stage system that looks at whether there is lymph node involvement.
The system considers location, size and spread of the cancer. Stage 1 and stage 2 patients are candidates for surgery. Stage 3 and stage 4 patients are not.
What Is the Next Step After Staging?
Once staging concludes, patients should review their treatment options with their primary doctor. Depending on the stage of your mesothelioma, you may be eligible for life-saving surgery.
If you are diagnosed in a stage that prevents you from receiving curative treatment, then you should consider getting a second opinion from a specialist. Second opinions for the stage of your cancer may provide new treatment options to extend life. Get connected to a specialist today using our free Doctor Match program.
Last Edited: August 5, 2020.