Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from the place where it started (primary site) to another part of the body. The process of cancer spreading from the primary site is called metastasis. When cancer cells metastasize, they do not change the way they look or the way they affect the body. Primary lung cancer that spreads to the brain is metastatic lung cancer, not brain cancer. Cancer cells can spread:

  • Directly from one part of the body to a nearby area (local invasion).
  • Into a lymph vessel and be carried through the lymph system to lymph nodes and other parts of the body. The lymph system is a network of vessels and nodes that carry fluid throughout the body and help to protect against infections.
  • Into the blood vessels and be carried to other parts of the body through the bloodstream.

What Types of Cancer Can Spread?

All types of cancer can spread. Some cancers are more likely to metastasize than others. The most common places that cancers metastasize to are:

  • Bones
  • Liver
  • Lungs

Cancers that are more advanced when they are diagnosed and treated are more likely to metastasize. Some primary cancers are more likely to metastasize to a specific part of the body. For example:

Breast cancer may spread to:

  • Bones
  • Brain
  • Liver
  • Lungs

Lung cancer may spread to:

  • Bones
  • Brain
  • Liver
  • Adrenal gland
  • Other lung

Melanoma skin cancer may spread to:

  • Bones
  • Brain
  • Liver
  • Lungs
  • Muscles

Prostate cancer may spread to:

  • Bones
  • Liver
  • Lungs
  • Adrenal gland

Colon cancer may spread to:

  • Tissue that lines the abdominal wall and covers most of the abdominal organs
  • Liver
  • Lungs

What Are the Risks for Metastatic Cancer?

Your risk for metastatic cancer depends on:

  • The type of cancer that you have
  • The stage and grade of your primary cancer at the time of diagnosis

Tumors are graded by looking at tumor cells under a microscope. Grading predicts how quickly the tumor cells will grow. Your health care provider will use the stage and the grade of your primary cancer to determine the chances of metastasis. This helps your health care provider to find the best treatment for you.

Risk for metastasis may go up with:

  • A larger primary tumor
  • A higher grade of tumor
  • Deeper growth of tumor
  • Lymph node involvement

How Is Metastatic Cancer Diagnosed?

Your health care provider may suspect metastatic cancer from your signs and symptoms. Some people do not have any symptoms. Their cancer is found through imaging or other tests.

  • Symptoms may include:
    • Weakness
    • Lack of energy
    • Pain
    • Weight loss
    • Trouble breathing
  • Signs may include:
    • Fluid buildup in your lungs or belly
    • Tumor growths that can be felt or seen
    • An enlarged liver

Your health care provider will also do a physical exam. This may include:

  • Blood tests to check for certain substances that are secreted by tumors (tumor markers).
    • Tumor markers that increase after treatment can indicate metastasis.
    • Tumor markers may be used to help diagnose metastasis in colon and prostate cancer.
    • Not all cancers have tumor markers.
  • Imaging studies, such as:
    • X-rays
    • Ultrasound
    • MRI
    • Other imaging tests, such as CT scans, bone scans, and PET scans
  • Biopsy
    • This involves checking a small piece of tissue from a new cancer site to see if the cells are similar to cancer cells from the primary site. This can confirm metastatic cancer.
    • Biopsies may be done by surgically removing a piece of tissue or using a needle to get a tissue sample.
  • Testing fluid samples from the lungs, spine, or belly for metastatic cancer cells.

What Are the Treatment Options for Metastatic Cancer?

There are many options for treating metastatic cancer. Your treatment will depend on:

  • The type of cancer that you have
  • How far your cancer has advanced
  • Your general health

Treatment may not be able to cure metastatic cancer, but it can often relieve the symptoms. In many cases, you may have a combination of treatments. Options may include:

  • Surgery
  • Cancer-killing drugs (chemotherapy)
  • X-ray treatment (radiation therapy)
  • Hormone therapy
  • Treatments that help your body to fight cancer (biologic therapy)

Can Metastatic Cancer Be Prevented?

The only way to prevent metastatic cancer is to find your primary cancer early and treat it successfully. Talk with your health care provider about cancer screening. Screening exams for early detection are available for some types of cancer, including:

  • Breast
  • Colon
  • Prostate
  • Lung
  • Cervical

How Can I Learn More?

The following websites provide more information.