After a colorectal cancer diagnosis, you likely experience a range of emotions. Allow yourself to be present with all your emotions, and communicate with your support network (family, friends, or mental health professional) to help you manage this unexpected event. You may have a desire to begin treatment immediately, but first you must go through the steps of cancer staging and testing to learn more about your cancer and how to treat it.

It’s important that you take the time to learn about your colon cancer diagnosis or rectal cancer diagnosis because your diagnosis determines the treatment you’ll receive. Learn as much as you can about your diagnosis before making cancer treatment decisions. And, if there is any uncertainty about your diagnosis or treatment choices, you’ll benefit from a second, or even a third, opinion.

Call our Patient Resources Line for help with your colorectal cancer diagnosis or to get resources for patients. Also, if you’re stage III or stage IV, download Your Guide in the Fight.


The following four steps reveal the stage of your cancer.

Step 1

First, you will have blood tests to look for certain enzymes and a physical exam and diagnostic scans to show where the cancer is located:

  • A computed tomography (CT) scan is an imaging method that uses x-rays to create pictures of cross-sections of the body.
  • A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is an imaging test that uses a radioactive substance called a tracer that creates 3-D images to look for disease in the body.
  • A Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan makes detailed pictures inside your body through the use of powerful magnets, radio waves, and a computer.

Need more information about your radiology exam? Visit

Step 2

Surgery may be the next step. Doctors may want to conduct a biopsy to remove cells from the tumor and have a pathologist examine them to determine whether they appear normal. This process is called cell differentiation.

You’ll want to have your tumor tested for Biomarkers at this point in your colorectal cancer diagnosis. Biomarkers play a key role in developing individualized treatment plans. Getting your tumor tested for biomarkers could help you choose a treatment plan that best matches your tumor type, so you may you may experience fewer side effects and improved health.

Here is a list of known biomarkers that impact colorectal cancer patients. For more information about their implications, visit the Biomarked website.

  • KRAS
  • NRAS
  • BRAF
  • PIK3CA
  • Carcinoembryonic Antigen (CEA)
  • Microsatellite Instability High (MSI-H)

Step 3

Your cancer is finally classified according to the TNM system (tumor, node, metastasis) developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC).

  • Tumor: How far the tumor extends from the inner lining of the colon or rectum through the layers of its walls
  • Nodes: Whether cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes by the colon
  • Metastasis: Whether cancer has spread beyond the colon and its adjacent tissues to organs like the lungs or liver

Step 4

After doctors classify a tumor with the TNM system, an overall stage is assigned, ranging from stage 0 (no cancer found) to stage IV (cancer spread to organs beyond the colon or rectum).

Stage TNM Classification
Stage 0 Tis, N0, M0
Stage I T1-T2, N0, M0
Stage IIA T3, N0, M0
Stage IIB T4a, N0, M0
Stage IIC T4b, N0, M0
Stage IIIA T1-T2, N1, M0T1, N2a, M0
Stage IIIB T3-T4a, N1, M0T2-T3, N2a, M0T1-T2, N2b, M0
Stage IIIC T4a, N2a, M0T3-T4a, N2b, M0T4b, N1-N2, M0
Stage IVA Any T, Any N, M1a
Stage IVB Any T, Any N, M1b

A colorectal cancer diagnosis can be incredibly stressful – no matter what stage. You’ll want to take time talking to your doctor before you decide what treatment option is best for you. Once you receive a colon cancer or rectal cancer diagnosis, start gathering people on your treatment team. In addition to your oncologist and surgeon, also seek out the support of professionals to help you manage mental health in addition to practical issues. If you haven’t already been connected to a social worker or nurse navigator, make sure you do so as early as possible.

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