What Is Stage Four Cancer?

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A stage four (IV) cancer diagnosis is a life-changing medical situation, often causing overwhelming emotion, worry and fear. The diagnosis will often involve a variety of testing that will help an oncologist (cancer doctor) to determine the rate at which the cancer cells are growing. The information gathered will help the oncologist pinpoint the cancer's location and make a decision about how to proceed with treatment.

Doctor looking at results on clipboard
Doctor looking at results on clipboard (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

What is Cancer?

When discussing cancer and its stages of progression, it is important to first define what the term "cancer" means. The American Cancer Society explains that cancer is caused by an overgrowth of abnormal cells that are the result of damaged DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Unlike normal cells that follow the usual course of growth, division and death, cancer cells live on. In fact, they undergo a continuous pattern of growing and dividing, eventually taking the place of the normal cells that naturally die off. As the cancer progresses, it often begins to metastasize, or invade, the healthy tissue and organs of the body.

Infected cells
Infected cells (Image: Duncan Smith/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Stage Four

Cancer that is at the lowest level of progression is considered to be a "stage one" cancer. What this means is that the cells have formed a cancerous tumor that is localized and has failed to invade other parts of the body. The most advanced stage of cancer is referred to as "stage four." Cancer Treatment Centers of America explains that once a cancerous tumor grows and infiltrates the lymph nodes or organs of the body, the cancer has progressed to stage four.

Doctor looking at laptop
Doctor looking at laptop (Image: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

Diagnosis

A stage four cancer diagnosis often involves a thorough physical examination, followed by image tests that will help to confirm the diagnosis. Laboratory testing is also included in the diagnosis, usually consisting of urine samples and blood testing. According to CancerGuide.org, the progression of some types of caner and a confirmation of staging are often not complete until the cancerous mass have been surgically removed and a biopsy is performed.

Woman getting mammogram exam
Woman getting mammogram exam (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Hope

Since there is no stage five, a stage four cancer diagnosis is considered to be the final and most advanced level of progression. But, the announcement by an oncologist that you or a loved one have reached stage four does not mean that the battle is over. Stage four cancer is not an automatic death sentence, but it may mean that you will be in for the fight of your life. There is no cure for cancer, but there are treatments available that can potentially reduce cancer symptoms, sometimes even resulting in incidences of remission for stage four cancer patients.

Couple holding hands for support
Couple holding hands for support (Image: Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images)

Treatment

Controlling the spread of cancer is often the key goal that will be addressed during a stage four phase of any type of cancer. Treatments often involve the use of radiation and chemotherapy, either separately or combined. In some cases surgery may also be an option. Stage four cancer patients may at times participate in clinical trials that can potentially relieve their symptoms.

Doctors in surgery
Doctors in surgery (Image: Jochen Sand/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

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