Metastatic Cancer

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In metastasis, cancer cells break away from where they first formed (primary cancer), travel through the blood or lymph system, and form new tumors (metastatic tumors) in other parts of the body. The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor.

What Is Metastatic Cancer?

Cancer that has spread from the tissue or organ where it started is called metastatic cancer. You may also hear it called stage IV cancer or advanced cancer. The process by which cancer cells spread to other parts of the body is called metastasis.

Different types of cancer are more likely to spread to certain areas in the body than others. For example, melanoma often spreads to the liver, whereas breast cancer is more likely to spread to the lungs and bones. In some cases, metastatic cancer may be found in only one other location, or it may spread to several places throughout the body.

Metastatic cancer has the same name and the same type of cancer cells as the original, or primary, cancer. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the lung and forms a tumor is metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer. It is treated as stage IV breast cancer, not as lung cancer. You can see treatment options for metastatic cancer in the treatment summaries for each type of cancer on this site.

Carcinoma of Unknown Primary

Sometimes a person will be diagnosed with metastatic cancer, but doctors cannot tell where the primary cancer is located. This type of cancer is called carcinoma of unknown primary origin, or CUP. When a patient is diagnosed with CUP, they will have a number of diagnostic tests. These tests help doctors narrow down the possible locations of the original cancer and determine the best course of treatment.

Treating Metastatic Cancer

The spread of cancer is a serious development in the management of one’s disease. However, advances in treatment are allowing some patients with metastatic cancer to live longer. In some cases, controlling the cancer is not out of the question. And even if cure is no longer the goal of treatment, life-extending therapies are available for many patients with metastatic cancer. Clinical trials are being conducted in patients with advanced and metastatic cancer to test new treatments and further refine existing therapies.

Transitioning to End-of-Life Care

If you have been told you have metastatic cancer that can no longer be controlled, you and your loved ones may want to discuss the transition to end-of-life care. Whether or not you choose to continue receiving active treatment, you can always receive palliative care to control the symptoms of cancer and side effects of treatment. More information about Planning the Transition to End-of-Life Care in Advanced Cancer is available on this site.