Advanced cancer

Introduction

This information may be useful if you have advanced cancer and are looking for information and support.

Cancer that has advanced beyond early stages is called many things including advanced, secondary, metastatic, and progressive cancer. Whatever words used, it can be devastating to hear your cancer has advanced. This information offers general information about advanced cancer, telling you what might happen and where help can be found.

Being diagnosed with an advanced cancer is a very frightening experience. The aim of this information is to acknowledge this experience and the different things that advanced cancer means to each of us. For some it may be a slow progressing illness, for others it’s more rapid.

Quotes in this information are from people with advanced cancer: how they described their illness and what has helped them. This information includes a section on the end of life that may not be relevant for you at this time.

Reading the information may stir up difficult feelings. You may want to read it with someone so you can talk things over as you go. Giving this information to others in the family may also be helpful.

The words in bold are explained in the glossary.

How cancer spreads

Sometimes, cells move away from the original (primary) cancer through the blood or lymphatic system and invade other organs. When cancer spreads from the place where it first grew to other parts of the body it is known as secondary, metastatic cancer or advanced cancer.

Advanced cancer usually cannot be cured. Often it can be treated to slow growth and spread and reduce symptoms.

An exception would be testicular cancer that has spread which is still often curable with modern chemotherapy. Cancers of the lymph glands (lymphoma) may arise in a number of sites at the same time but may be cured.

Knowing more about a type of cancer can help make sense of symptoms and the treatments that may be offered. 

When a cancer spreads from a primary site, for example, prostate cancer to the bones, it is called secondary, metastatic, or advanced prostate cancer. The cells that make up the tumour in that bone are prostate cancer cells. Your doctor will still call it prostate cancer. This is very different from having a primary bone cancer.

The difference between primary and secondary cancer is important for treatment. The treatment for secondary prostate cancer in the bone is designed to treat prostate cancer, while the treatment for primary bone cancer is designed to treat bone cancer.

If a primary cancer can be found, this helps doctors to decide what treatment to recommend. However, if a primary cancer can’t be found, doctors can still recommend particular treatments. For example, if the cancer is only in one area, it might be treated with an operation or with radiation. If the cancer has spread to several areas of the body, generally, chemotherapy is recommended.

Cancer of an unknown primary

Sometimes cancer is found to have spread without us knowing where it started from (the primary site). Because doctors don’t know where the cancer comes from, these cancers are difficult to treat.