Treatment for unknown primary cancer


Your doctor will advise you about what is the best treatment for you. Your treatment will depend on the stage, grade and type of cancer cells you have. The stage is the size of your cancer and if it has spread from where it started.

The grade of the cancer can tell if your cancer grows quickly or slowly. You can have a low, moderate or high grade cancer. Other factors such as your age and general health will also affect the treatment you receive.

The four main types of treatment are:

  • Surgery
  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Biological therapies


Surgery is usually needed when cancer is found in one organ. The aim of surgery is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Surgery can also be used to improve any symptoms of your cancer. For example, if a tumour is causing a blockage. For more information on particular types of surgery, contact the National Cancer Helpline on 1800 200 700 where you can speak to a specialist nurse.


Radiotherapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill or shrink cancer cells. Please see our Understanding Radiotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information on radiotherapy, or learn more about radiotherapy here.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to cure or control your cancer. These drugs can be given on their own or with each other. Many cancer patients receive a combination of two or three chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy can also be given before or after radiotherapy and surgery.

These drugs are either injected into your bloodstream or given as tablets. Please see our Understanding Chemotherapy and Other Cancer Drugs booklet, which you can download from our "Publications about cancer treatment side effects" list on the right hand side of this page, for more details, or learn more about chemotherapy here.

Biological therapies

This therapy uses your body’s immune system to treat cancer. Like chemotherapy, it involves the use of drugs to attack the cancer cells. These drugs are usually injected into your bloodstream. Biological therapies do not attack normal cells as they can tell the difference between cancer cells and normal cells. This means there are fewer side-effects with this treatment.

Learn more about biological therapy

Advanced treatment

Advanced cancer means that your cancer has spread from the area where it started. It is usually not possible to cure advanced cancer. Treatment can be given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. Treatments can involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biological therapy.

The palliative care team may visit you during this time. This team can help with any of your symptoms and support you and your family through your treatment.

Learn more about treatments


Side effects

The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Some treatments may cause symptoms like lowered resistance to infections, nausea or loss of appetite. Many treatments cause fatigue (tiredness). Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects before treatment.

Remember the aim of your treatment is to control your cancer and your symptoms. Your doctor will choose the treatment and dosage carefully so that you experience as few side-effects as possible.

Learn more about side effects

Clinical trials

If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.

Learn more about clinical trials


Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm