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Limited and extensive stage (small cell lung cancer)

Read about what limited disease and extensive disease means for small cell lung cancer.

The stage of a cancer tells you how big it is and whether it has spread. Knowing the stage helps your doctor decide which treatment you need.

Doctors often use a simple system to stage small cell lung cancer. They might describe your cancer as limited disease or extensive disease.

Limited disease

Doctors describe small cell lung cancer as limited if the cancer is contained in a single area that can be treated with radiotherapy.

This means your cancer:

  • is only in one lung
  • may be in nearby lymph nodes – for example, in the centre of the chest or above the collar bone

Extensive disease

Extensive disease means that the cancer has spread beyond a single area that can be treated with radiotherapy.

It might have spread:

  • within the chest – to the other lung or to lymph nodes further away from the cancer
  • or to other parts of your body

Or there may be cancer cells in the fluid around the lung (a malignant pleural effusion).

TNM staging system

Sometimes doctors use another staging system for small cell lung cancer. It is called the TNM system.

TNM stages

The TNM staging system stands for Tumour, Node, Metastasis.

  • T describes the size of the tumour
  • N describes whether there are any cancer cells in the lymph nodes
  • M describes whether the cancer has spread to a different part of the body

In the TNM staging system limited disease is the same as any T, any N, M0

Extensive disease is the same as:

  • any T, any N, M1a
  • any T, any N, M1b
  • any T any N, M1c


The stage of your cancer helps your doctor to decide which treatment you need. Treatment also depends on:

  • your type of cancer (the type of cells the cancer started in)
  • where the cancer is 
  • other health conditions that you have
Last reviewed: 
01 Aug 2017
  • TNM Classification of Malignant Tumours (8th edition)
    International Union Against Cancer   
    LH Sobin, MK Gospodarowicz, Ch Wittekind
    John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2017

  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (8th Edition)
    American Joint Committee on Cancer, 2017

  • The IASLC Lung Cancer Staging Project: Proposals for Revision of the TNM Stage Groupings in the Forthcoming (Eighth) Edition of the TNM Classification for Lung Cancer
    Peter Goldstraw and others for the Study of Lung Cancer Staging and Prognostic Factors Committee
    Journal of Thoracic Oncology, 2015, vol.11, No.1:39-51

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