What is metastatic (advanced) cancer?

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Metastatic cancer is a term that usually describes cancer that has spread. 

Treatment for metastatic cancer is normally to keep the cancer under control rather than hoping to cure it.

If you have had a diagnosis of cancer before (primary cancer), the cancer may come back in another part of your body (recurrent cancer). Sometimes when a person’s cancer is first diagnosed, it is already at an advanced stage. This means it has already spread from where the cancer started (primary site). Often the treatments used for the metastatic cancer are treatements related to the primary site.

If the cancer is metastatic or advanced when you are diagnosed, you may hear your doctor using the term ‘de novo’ cancer to describe this.

If a cancer has already spread when you are first diagnosed but the doctors are unable to find the primary cancer (or where the cancer started), the doctors sometimes call this ‘cancer unknown primary’.

Different doctors use different terms to explain a cancer that has spread. Metastatic cancer is often called advanced cancer or secondary cancer. Each of these terms mean the same thing - cancer that has spread to another part of the body. If you're not sure what these terms mean, ask your doctor to explain. You can also ask one of our cancer nurses for advice.

Call our Support Line on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre to speak to a nurse in confidence.

Metastatic cancer is often called advanced cancer or secondary cancer. Each of these terms mean the same thing - cancer that has spread to another part of the body.

Coping with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer

Having metastatic cancer has been described as ‘riding an emotional rollercoaster’ - sometimes you may feel very low, while at other times you may feel very positive and hopeful.

In time, though, most people come through the initial shock and upset and find a way to cope. 

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My prognosis was poor. I had overwhelming feelings of shock, disbelief, sadness, fear and anxiety.

I grieved for all the things I thought the cancer would take from me, and the future I had imagined, [but] I’ve been living with secondary breast cancer for 13 years and lead a full, active life.

We have some information to help you with your feelings if you have been diagnosed with metastatic cancer

How and where do cancers spread?

Cancer cells can spread from the original tumour to other parts of your body through the lymphatic system or blood.

These cells can then grow in other organs in your body to form a secondary tumour.

Metastatic (advanced or secondary) cancer

When cancer spreads from the original tumour, it can be called metastatic cancer. Metastatic cancer is named after the part of the body where it began. Even when cancer has spread to a new area, it is the same sort of cancer as when it started. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is called metastatic breast cancer. Or prostate cancer that spreads to the bones will be called metastatic prostate cancer and will be treated with prostate cancer treatments.

Different cancers can spread to different parts of the body.

You may also hear terms like ‘bone mets’ or ‘liver mets’. These mean a cancer that has spread to your bone or liver. ‘Mets’ is short for metastasis.

Areas of the body often affected by metastatic (advanced) cancer

The most common parts of the body that cancer spreads to are the bones, liver, lungs and brain.

What is locally advanced cancer?

Your cancer may be described as locally advanced. This means the cancer has grown outside the organ it started in but has not yet spread to other more distant parts of the body.

With locally advanced cancer, treatment is still aimed at curing the cancer.

Metastatic cancer usually means that your treatment will be to control the cancer for as long as possible, rather than curing it.

If you are confused at all about your cancer, how your doctor describes it or what this means for you, ask your doctor to explain it more clearly. You can also speak to one of our cancer nurses by calling our Support Line on 1800 200 700 or by visiting a Daffodil Centre.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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