Stages of the Cancer Journey

Posted on September 21, 2022 in Cancer

Written by Dr. Jain

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One of the hardest parts of cancer is uncertainty. Not knowing what your future holds can make you feel angry, scared, and even guilty.

To ease some of your stress, the radiation oncologists at SERO have outlined the stages that many patients encounter on their cancer journey.

Stage 1: Establishing a Diagnosis

Pre-diagnosis is the most overlooked phase of the cancer journey. And yet, for many oncology patients, the anxiety surrounding a possible cancer diagnosis can be unbearable.

Routine Visit

The pre-diagnosis stage typically begins one of two ways:

  1. You visit your general practitioner because you are experiencing unusual symptoms like coughing or night sweats. Your doctor recognizes these symptoms as the early signs of cancer.
  2. A test result from a routine cancer screening (e.g. mammogram, Pap smear, colonoscopy) is abnormal.

Oncology Consultation

Your doctor may order a biopsy directly to assist with diagnosis or may refer you to a cancer specialist for more advanced care. During this one- to two-hour consultation, your oncologist will perform a physical examination, collect more information regarding your medical history, and/or request blood work.

He or she may also request additional diagnostic imaging tests, including:

  • CT scans
  • MRI scans
  • X-rays
  • Mammograms
  • Ultrasounds 
  • Fluoroscopies
  • PET scans 

It may take a few hours to a few days to receive the results of your diagnostic tests. 


If any of your diagnostic tests reveal abnormalities, your doctor or oncologist will order a biopsy. 

This procedure involves removing a tissue sample, either via needle, endoscopy, or surgery. A biopsy is the only way to diagnose most cancers although sometimes imaging/lab work is sufficient. 

Stages of the Cancer Journey Infographic presented by SERO

Stage 2: Staging and Planning

If your biopsy detects cancerous cells, you will move to the second stage of the cancer journey: Staging and Planning.

Additional Testing

After confirming the presence of cancer, your oncologist may order additional tests if needed to determine the clinical stage of your cancer. The clinical stage is an estimation of the cancer’s progression which helps to decide the type and intensity of treatments that are recommended.

Cancer Treatment Planning

Understanding the severity of your disease allows oncologists and other medical professionals to recommend effective cancer treatment modalities like radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

However, your cancer treatment plan is ultimately up to you. Be sure to understand all of your options and the benefits and risks associated with each option before making a decision on treatment with your doctor.

Seeking a Second Opinion

After learning more about your cancer and your oncologist’s approach to treating it, you may decide to seek a second opinion. A different oncologist can confirm your diagnosis, giving you the confidence needed to move forward. They can also explore different treatment options such as the availability of clinical trials at their institution.

Though it may be awkward to bridge this conversation with your current oncologist, they should understand the gravity of a cancer diagnosis and encourage you to seek the highest quality care possible.

Sharing Your Diagnosis

If you haven’t already shared your diagnosis with loved ones, now may be the time to do so. Though it can be uncomfortable to break the news, letting friends and family know can strengthen your support system.

This support system will be invaluable during treatment. Friends can drive you to and from chemotherapy, for instance. Or, they can handle routine tasks like grocery shopping or cooking when you don’t have the energy to.

Stage 3: Cancer Treatment

Depending on your cancer type and stage, your treatment plan may include some combination of:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Targeted drug therapy 

Receiving Treatment

Cancer treatment will look different for different patients. It is important to understand what the goal of the treatment is. For some patients, the goal is to “cure” the cancer, or to permanently rid the body of cancer cells. For others, the goal may be “palliative”, meaning to slow the cancer’s growth and avoid symptoms caused by the cancer.

Ongoing Testing

If possible, your cancer care team will periodically conduct testing to see if your body is responding to treatment. Testing may involve diagnostic imaging like a CT scan. It may also involve blood work. In other cases, the treatment plan is based on clinical trial results, and the entire course will be completed prior to testing to ensure the treatment worked.

Adjusting Your Treatment Plan

If your cancer treatment is working, your oncologist will likely recommend that you continue on this course. But if cancer treatment proves ineffective, your cancer care specialist will adjust your treatment plan. 


For many patients, the goal of cancer treatment is remission. However, this milestone doesn’t mean that you are cured. Instead, it means you have little to no sign of cancer in your body. 

Once you have reached remission, your oncologist may suggest reducing the dosage or frequency of your cancer treatment. Or, he or she may suggest stopping treatment altogether, a period called surveillance

Stage 4: Survivorship

Though remission is certainly worth celebrating, there are still things you can do the help with the last parts of your cancer journey.

Early Survivorship

For the first several years after finishing treatment, you will visit your oncologist every three to six months for follow-up care. The main objective of follow-up care is to monitor for cancer recurrence. 

Another goal of follow-up care is to address the lasting effects of cancer treatment. Unfortunately, life-saving modalities like chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause mild to severe side effects. Your doctor will help you monitor for and treat side effects.

Long-Term Survivorship

For most cancers, patients are often considered “cured” when they have been in complete remission for five years, and many oncologists will recommend follow-up with your primary care physician. Discuss your follow-up plan with your doctor.

What if Cancer Treatment Doesn’t Work?

Unfortunately, not all oncology patients enter complete remission. Certain types of cancer never truly go away. Instead, patients must treat their cancer as a chronic condition, similar to diabetes or heart disease.

For many patients with chronic cancer, the focus shifts to palliative care. The goal of palliative care is to improve a patient’s quality of life, typically by reducing symptoms like pain and fatigue. Just because the goal of care is palliative does not mean survival is limited – discuss the goal of care and expectations with your doctor.

Don’t Endure This Journey Alone

The uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis can be terrifying, especially when you are braving it alone. Fortunately, SERO is here to provide comfort and support – no matter where you are in your cancer journey.

At SERO, we offer patients everything from second opinions to cutting-edge radiation care. We also provide palliative radiation therapy for patients who want to ease the discomfort of cancer symptoms.

To learn more about the services we offer, call us at 704-333-7376.