Dec 17, 2015 10:00 AM

SALT LAKE CITY - Cancer usually begins in one location and then spreads, but in 3-5% of cancer patients, the tissue where a cancer began is unknown. In these individuals a cancer diagnosis is made because it has metastasized to other sites. Patients with these so-called “cancers of unknown primary,” or CUP, have a very poor prognosis, with a median survival of three months. A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Oncology finds that family members of CUP patients are at higher risk of developing CUP themselves, as well as cancers of the lung, pancreas, colon, and some cancers of the blood.

Jewel Samadder, MD, is the lead researcher on the University of Utah and Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) study. He said he was motivated to do the study when he had a patient that presented with abnormal fluid accumulation in his abdomen. They removed the fluid and found cancer cells, but could never find the primary source of the cancer, even after an extensive search involving imaging and endoscopy.

“The relatives were very distraught and we had very little that we could tell them about where the cancer started from in their loved one and whether they, as family members, were at increased risk for cancer,” he said.

Also upsetting to CUP patients and family members, according to Samadder, is the difficulty physicians have in determining the best course of therapy to recommend. “Because we are not able to identify the primary tumor site, we are not able to select a type of chemotherapy or radiotherapy that the cancer would respond to best.”

He adds that the inability to select the best therapy and the advanced nature of these cancers are likely responsible for the poor outcomes.

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Heather Simonsen
Public Relations – Huntsman Cancer Institute
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About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is the official cancer center of Utah and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Mountain West. The campus includes a state-of-the-art cancer specialty hospital and two buildings dedicated to cancer research. Huntsman Cancer Institute provides patient care, cancer screening, and education at community clinics and affiliate hospitals throughout the Mountain West. It is consistently recognized among the best cancer hospitals in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The region’s first proton therapy center opened in 2021 and a major hospital expansion is underway. Huntsman Cancer Institute is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive environment for staff, students, patients, and communities. Advancing cancer research discoveries and treatments to meet the needs of patients who live far away from a major medical center is a unique focus. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center, including genes responsible for breast, ovarian, colon, head and neck cancers, and melanoma. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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