What is advanced cancer?

In this section:

What is advanced cancer?

Advanced cancer is a term that usually describes cancer that has spread. Treatment for advanced cancer is normally to keep the cancer under control rather than trying to cure it.

Advanced cancers have usually spread from where they started to other parts of the body. They can also be called secondary or metastatic cancer. C a primary cancer (cancer that has not spread) may be called advanced because it cannot be cured. For example, advanced brain cancer.

Different doctors use different terms to explain a cancer that has spread. For example, advanced cancer, metastatic cancer or secondary cancer. 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 Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre to speak to a nurse in confidence.

How and where do cancers spread?

Cancer cells can break off from the original tumour and move to other parts of your body through the lymphatic system or blood stream.

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

Secondary cancer

Where a cancer has spread from the original tumour it is called a secondary cancer. A secondary cancer is named after the part of the body where it began.

For example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is called secondary breast cancer. You may also hear terms like ‘bone mets’ or ‘liver mets’. These mean a cancer that has spread to your bone or liver, for example. ‘Mets’ is short for metastasis, which means cancer that has spread.

Different cancers can spread to different parts of the body. Even when cancer has spread to a new area, it is the same sort of cancer as when it started. For example, prostate cancer that spreads to the bones will be called secondary prostate cancer and will be treated with prostate cancer treatments.

Areas of the body often affected by secondary cancer

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

For more information on cancer that has spread to these parts of the body, please click on the links below:

Recurrent cancer

How do cancers come back?

Sometimes cancers come back because tiny cells, which can’t be seen, are left behind after cancer treatment. Over time these can grow again to form a secondary tumour.

Sometimes cancer can come back in the same part of the body (known as local recurrence) or it can come back somewhere else in your body (known as metastases) or secondary cancer.

Even if cancer recurs distantly, in a completely new part of your body, your doctor will still refer to it as the type of cancer with which you were originally diagnosed.

For example, breast cancer recurring in the bones would be called breast cancer with bone metastasis.

What’s the difference between locally advanced and 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 cancers treatment is still aimed at curing the cancer. Advanced 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 Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or by visiting a Daffodil Centre.

Next: Find out about treatment options for advanced cancer

Date Last Reviewed: 
Thursday, October 8, 2015
Date Last Revised: 
Wednesday, August 17, 2016