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What is Metastatic Cancer?

Find the answers to all of your questions about metastatic cancer including how its diagnosed, treated and the symptoms associated with it.

What is Metastatic Cancer?

When receiving a cancer diagnosis your doctor can often use highly technical terms to describe your cancer. While doctors and people in the cancer community are often familiar with these technical terms, an individual with a new diagnosis may not understand the prognosis. One of the terms that are used to describe a more serious form of cancer is “metastases”. What is metastatic cancer?

Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from the primary site (the part of the body where cancer started) to other parts of the body. The cancerous cells migrate from one part of the body to another through the bloodstream or the lymph system. 

In this article, we will dive deeper into what metastatic cancer is and how its spreads throughout the body. Additionally, we will take a look at some of the most commonly asked questions about metastatic cancer including which common sites, symptoms, and treatments for metastatic cancer.

How Does Metastatic Cancer Spread?

It takes a lot for a cancer cell to spread to another part of the body. As we mentioned earlier there are two means of transportation for cancer cells:

  • The bloodstream
  • The lymph symptom (a network of tissues, vessels, and organs that carries watery fluid 

However, it takes a lot more than a means of transportation for metastatic cancer to spread. In fact, in order to spread to a new part of the body a cancer cell must:

  • Breakaway from the original tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymph system 
  • Attach to the wall of a blood or lymph vessel and move to a new body part
  • Continue to grow and thrive in the new location
  • Avoid attacks from the body’s immune system during this process

It’s important to note that metastatic cancer can also result from growth into tissue directly surrounding the original tumor. However, when this occurs the cancer is typically more localized, especially if it is caught early.

What Are Common Sites that Metastatic Cancer Spreads?

Cancer has the capability to spready to any part of the body. Generally, cancer cells are most likely to spread to the bones, lungs, and liver. However, certain types of cancers tend to spread to specific parts of the body. For example:

  • Breast Cancer – Typically spreads to the liver, bones, brain, lungs, and chest wall.
  • Lung Cancer – Typically spreads to the adrenal glands, liver, bones, and brain.
  • Prostate Cancer – Typically spreads to the bones.
  • Colon Cancer – Typically spreads to the liver and the lungs.

Occasionally cancer can spread to the skin, muscles, or other organs, but this is much less frequent. As a general rule, cancer tends to spread “downstream” from the primary cancer site.

Are Certain Types of Cancer More Likely to be Metastatic?

Unfortunately, any type of cancer can metastasize. Certain factors that increase the potential for the spreading of cancer cells include:

  • The type of cancer (breast, prostate, kidney, melanoma, ovarian, and thyroid cancer are most likely to develop bone metastasis according to the American Cancer Society)
  • The speed of cancer growth
  • Other factorial behaviors identified by your doctor

Much more research is needed on how different types of cancer metastasize, which is why it’s important to have regular check-ins with your doctor

How is Metastatic Cancer Diagnosed?

The monitoring and diagnosis of metastatic cancer involve a wide array of tests. Your doctor may perform one of the following tests depending on your symptoms.

Blood Tests

Certain types of blood tests can indicate if the cancer is active or progressing after the initial diagnosis. Increasing levels of the below tests may indicate that you have metastatic cancer:

  • CEA (carcinoembryonic antigen) – Colon cancer
  • CA-125 – Ovarian cancer
  • PSA (prostate specific antigen) – Prostate cancer
  • AFP (alpha-feto-protein) – Testicular cancer
  • HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) – Testicular cancer

If you have elevated liver enzymes during a routine blood test it may indicate that you have liver metastasis. However, these tests often come back normal even in those with advanced forms of cancer.

Imaging

Depending on the type of cancer you have, your doctor may also order imaging to verify or identify the spread of cancer. Some commonly ordered images include:

  • Ultrasound – helpful in identifying cancer in the abdomen or liver.
  • CT Scan – used to identify masses within lymph nodes, lungs, and the liver.
  • Bone Scan – useful in identifying if cancer has spread to the bones.
  • MRI – helps to identify bone metastasis in the spine or brain metastasis.
  • PET scans – cancer cells can often fall into the category of hypermetabolic.

While these tests are useful in helping your care team understand what is going on in your body, they are not always definitive. In some circumstances, your doctor may need to complete a biopsy to confirm the presence of metastatic cancer.

“They ran a lot of tests and found that there were going to be some things that needed to be done that weren’t standard, so they scheduled some appointments for her to gets CT scans and all the other scans.”

Read More about Willie’s wife’s struggle with metastatic thyroid cancer.

What are the Symptoms of Metastatic Cancer?

Individuals with metastatic cancer don’t always experience symptoms. However, you may experience any of the following symptoms depending on where cancer has spread:

  • Headache or dizziness
  • Loss of energy
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Pain in the infected area of the body
  • Jaundice

Symptoms can be an effective way to identify where cancer has spread. For example, if you experiencing jaundice, it’s a key indicator that cancer has spread to your liver. Therefore, it’s essential, to be honest, and share your symptoms with your doctor.

How is Metastatic Cancer Treated?

Your doctor may recommend several different treatment plans depending on the progression and type of cancer. 

If your cancer is localized to one part of your body, your doctor may suggest local therapy or treatment of just the cancerous area. Most often this includes surgery to remove the tumor or radiation therapy.

If your cancer has spread past a localized area your doctor may suggest systemic therapy or treatment of the entire body. This often includes the use of chemotherapy and the use of various medications.

How Can I Prevent Cancer from Metastasizing?

Currently, there are no reliable ways to prevent cancer from metastasizing. The most effective defense that we have against metastatic cancer is early detection.

It is crucial to complete a cancer screening as early as possible. You know your body best. Therefore, if you have cancer symptoms it’s better to be safe and get screened than wait until the issue gets worse.

Is Metastatic Cancer the Same Type of Cancer Once it Spreads?

You may be wondering if metastatic cancer gets a different name once it spreads to other regions of the body. The cancer type remains the same; however, the word metastatic is added to the classification of your cancer.

For example, if you are diagnosed with breast cancer and it manages to spread to the lungs it does not become lung cancer and breast cancer. Instead, it becomes metastatic breast cancer.

“He said he needed to do some testing. He needed to biopsy the lung tumor. That would tell him for certain that that was breast cancer that had spread to my lung rather than lung cancer.”

Learn more about Erin C’s struggle with metastatic breast cancer.

How is Metastatic Cancer Different from Advanced Cancer?

You will sometimes hear the word advanced cancer and metastatic cancer used interchangeably. However, they don’t always mean the same thing.

Advanced cancer is usually used to describe cancer that cannot be cured. In these instances, your doctor will focus on treating your symptoms and prolonging your life rather than aggressively attacking cancer itself. 

Metastatic cancer is not always advanced. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, distant testicular cancer has a five-year survival rate of 73%, while regional testicular cancer has a five-year survival rate of 96%.

To put this into perspective, almost 3 out of 4 men with distant metastatic testicular cancer live at least five years past their initial diagnosis. In this case, metastatic testicular cancer would not qualify as advanced cancer.

The healthcare establishment doesn’t like to use the word “cured” because there is no cure for metastatic cancer. But I’m not a medical doctor, I can say whatever I want. I want to say I’m cured, because I haven’t had any evidence of disease since 2011.  If I have it now, it’ll probably be a second cancer.

Read More about Lee’s journey with Metastatic Colon Cancer

Where Can I Learn More About Cancer Symptoms and Treatments?

If you are looking to learn more about the symptoms and treatments for your specific type of cancer head over to our FAQ page.

Additionally, if you are looking for stories of people who had the same type of cancer as you, check out our ever-growing list of cancer stories.

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