When cancer spreads

March 21, 2018 | by Joseph Kash, MD

You’ve probably heard someone ask a close family member or friend if their cancer has spread, but what does that really mean?

The spread of cancer from the part of the body where it started (the primary site) to a different part of the body is called metastatic cancer. When this occurs, cancer cells break away from a tumor by traveling through the blood stream or lymph system.

If cancer cells travel through the lymph system, they could end up in lymph nodes or they can spread to organs. Other times, cancer cells break off from the main tumor and spread through the bloodstream. Some of these cells may settle in a new area, start to grow, and form new tumors.

Any type of cancer can spread or metastasize. Whether cancer metastasizes depends on several factors, including:

  • The type of cancer
  • How aggressive or fast growing it is
  • How long it has been in the body before treatment

Cancer that has spread to other parts of the body always has the same name as the original cancer. For example, breast cancer that has spread to a person’s lungs is called metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer.

Metastatic cancer does not always cause symptoms. If metastatic cancer does have symptoms, the frequency of symptoms depends on the size and location of the tumors. Here are some common symptoms:

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

Once cancer spreads, it can be hard to control. Since metastatic cancer is advanced cancer, the goal of treatment is to help a patient live as well as possible for as long as possible. Treatment of cancer that has metastasized depends on:

  • The original cancer and where it started
  • How much the cancer has spread and where it is located
  • Your age and health Your personal treatment choices

Coping with emotions and lifestyle challenges is an important part of living with this type of cancer. You may cope better by:

Metastatic cancer is not a death sentence. Some people live for many years with metastatic cancer. Your doctor and the rest of your healthcare team can help you understand your diagnosis and learn to manage the disease.

Learn more about cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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