Managing disease and lifestyle when cancer spreads.
What you need to know
Metastatic cancer is the term for any cancer that has spread through the bloodstream or lymph system to other parts of the body. Doctors may find the spreading at the time of your diagnosis, later during treatment or after treatment. Also known as stage IV cancer (or advanced cancer), metastatic cancer is more challenging because once cancer spreads it can be hard to control.
Metastatic cancer has the same name as the primary cancer. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the lung is called metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer. It is treated as stage IV breast cancer.
Understand your diagnosis
Following a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, you may have more tests to help your doctor understand how far your cancer has spread.
Some tests your doctor may recommend include:
- X-ray, CT scan, MRI or positron emission tomography (PET): Imaging technology to look inside the body
- Tumor marker test: Sampling blood, urine or tissue to look for substances that may indicate certain types of cancer (not all cancers have a tumor marker)
- Blood test: Looking for changes in blood
- Genetic markers on the cancer to help select personalized treatments
Customized treatment plans
Because each person and every cancer is different, your doctor uses your tests and exams to come up with an individual treatment plan. How long this takes depends on how complex your case is and your treatment goals. During this time, you build a relationship with your cancer doctors. You become a team for your care.
Open, honest communication can only benefit your relationship with your doctors. These tips can also help you get the most from this partnership:
- Prepare in advance: Write down your questions ahead of your visits. A few examples of smart questions:
- What are my options?
- Why are we doing these tests?
- Why do you think this treatment is right?
- What side effects might this treatment cause?
- Find trustworthy resources: If you’re looking to learn more, rely on this website or sources your team recommends, so you can make decisions based on good information.
- Take a partner: Bringing a friend or family member to appointments can make you feel more confident and help you remember important details.
While some metastatic cancers can be removed or controlled many cannot. In some cases, treatment may be offered to stop or slow the growth of the cancer or to relieve symptoms. Palliative care or symptom management provides treatment and supportive care that relieves symptoms caused by the cancer, several studies have found that palliative care can prolong life over more aggressive therapy options. The choice to have no treatment is always an option, and is also openly discussed for those with this preference.
Treatment for metastatic cancer depends on where the cancer began and where it has spread. The most common options are radiation, non-surgical interventional radiology (for certain tumor types) and surgery. For cancers that have spread to the brain, we offer Gamma Knife stereotactic radiosurgery - the gold standard radiation treatment. Learn more about Gamma Knife.
Other new types of cancer treatments may be options, such as immunotherapy and targeted therapy. Talk to your doctor to see if these methods or a clinical trial may be right for you. Learn more about treatment options.
When cancers cannot be controlled
In some cases, metastatic cancer cannot be removed or controlled with treatment. If your doctor tells you that treatment is not likely to help, then you and your loved ones can talk with your doctor about the options. Our team can offer support in any situation.
Legacy Cancer Institute can help you focus on improving your quality of life at every step of the way. Learn more about living with cancer.
You are not alone. Legacy offers support throughout your cancer journey, as well as care for your emotional, social and spiritual needs.
National Cancer Institute: Metastatic cancer
What is metastasis?
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