About Metastatic Cancer

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Every year, Huntsman Cancer Institute serves thousands of people with cancer from Utah and surrounding states. We work hard to make sure every patient has an exceptional experience with the best possible results, whether the person's cancer is newly diagnosed, in remission, or at an advanced stage.

The stage of cancer tells how much cancer is in the body and if it has spread. Knowing the stage of a cancer helps us make the best treatment plans.

Cancer can spread in one of these three ways:

  • Through tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer cells travel through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer cells move through blood vessels to other parts of the body.

What is Cancer Metastasis?

Metastasis is the word used when cancer spreads to a part of the body other than where it started. The cancer cells that spread are the same type of cells as where the cancer began, also called the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

What Stage of Cancer Does Metastasis Happen?

When doctors first find cancer, they often give the cancer a stage from zero to four.

  • Stage 0: Abnormal cells are present but have not spread to nearby tissue. Also called carcinoma in situ, or CIS. CIS is not cancer, but it may become cancer.
  • Stage I, Stage II, and Stage III: Cancer is present. The higher the number, the larger the cancer tumor and the more it has spread into nearby tissues.
  • Stage IV: The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body.

Metastatic cancer falls under stage IV cancer. This means the cancer is at an advanced stage.

What are the Signs that Cancer has Spread?

Signs and symptoms of cancer metastasis depend on where the cancer has spread. Some people with cancer may not have symptoms at all.

These could be signs of metastatic cancer:

  • Pain and fractures when cancer has spread to the bone
  • Headache, seizures, or dizziness when cancer has spread to the brain
  • Difficulty breathing when cancer has spread to the lung
  • Jaundice or swelling in the belly when cancer has spread to the liver

How is Metastatic Cancer Treated?

The goal for metastatic cancer is often to slow down or stop the spread. Some people can live for years with metastatic cancer.

Treatment options depend on many factors. These include the type of primary cancer, where the cancer has spread, and any previous treatments or surgeries.

When cancer has metastasized, it is important to talk with your doctor about all treatment options. Our supportive oncology and survivorship program can help patients who have pain and other symptoms of cancer that has spread.

How Do You Check for Metastasis?

Doctors use different medical tests to help check for metastasis:

  • Laboratory tests include checking body tissues, blood, urine, or other substances in the body. This helps your care team know how your organs are working. They can also look for substances that cells produce when cancer is present.
  • Imaging tests use dyes, x-rays, magnets, radio waves, and computer technology to look inside the body. These tests create detailed images of bone and internal organs and structures to check for cancer.

Where are Cancer Cells Most Likely to Spread?

Bones, lungs, and the liver are the most common places for cancer cells to spread. When cancer starts in one area of the body, it will often travel to a nearby lymph node before spreading to a different organ. Cancer can spread to one organ or several.

Am I at Risk of Metastasis?

Many different factors influence cancer spreading. Cancers diagnosed at a later stages are more likely to spread than cancers diagnosed in early stages. Certain types of cancer can also influence the risk of cancer spreading.

If you are concerned about your cancer metastasizing, talk with your care team. They can discuss signs and symptoms to watch for, screening options, and sometimes treatments to help lower the change of cancer spreading.