Lung Cancer Staging Essentials: The New TNM Staging System and Potential Imaging Pitfalls

Authors: Stacy J. UyBico, MD, Carol C. Wu, MD, Robert D. Suh, MD, Nanette H. Le, DO, Kathleen Brown, MD and Mayil S. Krishnam, MD, MRCP, FRCR


Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide, with a dismal 5-year survival rate of 15%. The TNM (tumor-node-metastasis) classification system for lung cancer is a vital guide for determining treatment and prognosis. Despite the importance of accuracy in lung cancer staging, however, correct staging remains a challenging task for many radiologists. The new 7th edition of the TNM classification system features a number of revisions, including subdivision of tumor categories on the basis of size, differentiation between local intrathoracic and distant metastatic disease, recategorization of malignant pleural or pericardial disease from stage III to stage IV, reclassification of separate tumor nodules in the same lung and lobe as the primary tumor from T4 to T3, and reclassification of separate tumor nodules in the same lung but not the same lobe as the primary tumor from M1 to T4. Radiologists must understand the details set forth in the TNM classification system and be familiar with the changes in the 7th edition, which attempts to better correlate disease with prognostic value and treatment strategy. By recognizing the relevant radiologic appearances of lung cancer, understanding the appropriateness of staging disease with the TNM classification system, and being familiar with potential imaging pitfalls, radiologists can make a significant contribution to treatment and outcome in patients with lung cancer.