What Does Metastatic Cancer Mean?

What is Metastatic Cancer?

Edited and Compiled By Tony Subia
Updated June 2018
Edited For Style, Length and Clarification of Content
Originally Published By The National Cancer Institute

The main reason almost any cancer is so serious is its ability to spread beyond its primary source to other parts of the body. For example, Pancreatic Cancer cells can spread by moving into nearby tissue. The cells can also spread regionally to nearby lymph nodes and blood streams and subsequently to other distant organs such as the liver and lungs. When this happens it is called “metastatic cancer.” For many types of metastatic cancer, it is referred to as Stage IV (four) of the original primary location source of the cancer.

The process by which cancer cells spread to other parts of body is called is called metastasis. Metastatic cancer cells have distinct features that are unique to the original primary cancer location and unlike the cells in the place where the cancer may have been found. When observed under a microscope and tested in other ways the doctor can tell if the cancer has spread from another primary location.

Metastatic cancer has the same name as the primary cancer. For example, pancreatic cancer that spreads to the liver is called metastatic pancreatic cancer, not liver cancer. It is treated as Stage IV pancreatic cancer, not as liver cancer.

When a new primary cancer occurs in a person with a history of cancer, it is known as a second primary cancer. Second primary cancers are rare. Most of the time, when someone who has had cancer has cancer again, it means the first primary cancer has returned.

Cancer cells spread through the body in a series of steps. These steps include:

  1. Growing into, or invading, nearby normal tissue
  2. Moving through the walls of nearby lymph nodes or blood vessels
  3. Traveling through the lymphatic system and bloodstream to other parts of the body
  4. Stopping in small blood vessels at a distant location, invading the blood vessel walls, and moving into the surrounding tissue
  5. Growing in this tissue until a tiny tumor forms
  6. Causing new blood vessels to grow, which creates a blood supply that allows the tumor to continue growing

Most of the time, spreading cancer cells die at some point in this process. But, as long as conditions are favorable for the cancer cells at every step, some of them are able to form new tumors in other parts of the body. Metastatic cancer cells can also remain inactive at a distant site for many years before they begin to grow again, if at all.

Video: How Cancer Spreads (Metastasis)

Symptoms and Possible Warning Signs of Metastatic Cancer

Metastatic cancer will not always present symptoms and if it does, the nature and frequency will depend upon the size and location of cancerous tumors and severity of the symptoms. Be vigilant of some of the common signs and symptoms which are usually and uniquely related to the specific organ where metastasis has occurred.

> If to the Bone: Pain and Fractures
> If to the Brain: Headache, Seizures, and Dizziness
> If to the Lung: Shortness of Breath
> If to the Liver: Jaundice and/or Swelling of the Abdomen Area

Can Metastatic Cancer Be Treated?

Once cancer has spread (metastasized) beyond its primary location, it can be difficult to control if at all. In some rare cases some types of cancer could be cured. However, most types cannot. Particularly with pancreas cancer, any further treatments which can include chemotherapy, radiation, and even surgical removal of tumors that have spread to the secondary location are considered “palliative” which mostly only intend to extend quality life.

If a patient has been told his or her particular type of metastatic cancer can no longer be controlled, you may consider discussing end of life palliative care with family and loved-ones even if you wish to continue with treatments to reduce the size of tumors to minimize pain and discomfort.

Keep in mind that scientific medical research is continuing to study methods to stop both primary and metastatic cancer cells. Such research includes ways to help your own immune system fight cancer. Studies are also underway to find ways to inhibit cancer cells for spreading.

Sources and Information Relating To Metastatic Cancer

Johns Hopkins Medicine Research Center
Pulmonary Metastases in Pancreatic Cancer
Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

Keywords: What is Metastatic Cancer., Pancreatic Cancer Metastasis, How Metastasis Occurs, Signs
and Symptoms of Metastasis, Palliative Treatment of Metastatic Cancer. Spread Via Lymph Nodes and
Blood Streams

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