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Metastasis (metastatic cancer)

Metastasis is the spread of cancer cells to new areas of the body, often by way of the lymph system or bloodstream. A metastatic cancer, or metastatic tumor, is one that has spread from the primary site of origin, or where it started, into different areas of the body.

Tumors formed from cells that have spread are called secondary tumors. The cancer may have spread to areas near the primary site, called regional metastasis, or to parts of the body that are farther away, called distant metastasis.

Diagnosing metastatic cancer

Cancer that has spread from the primary, or original, site to other places in the body is generally classified as advanced cancer. When the cancer has spread only to nearby tissues or lymph nodes, it is called locally advanced cancer. When the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it is called metastatic cancer. The liver, lungs, lymph nodes and bones are common areas of metastasis.

Even when metastatic cancer spreads to a new location, it is still named after the area of the body where it started. For example, a person with breast cancer that has spread to the bones is said to have breast cancer with bone metastases. If a cancer has spread widely throughout the body before it is discovered and it is unknown exactly where it started, it is called cancer of unknown primary origin.

Learn more about diagnosing cancer.

Treatment for metastatic cancer

Treatment for metastatic cancer aims to slow the growth or spread of the cancer. Treatment depends on the type of cancer, where it started, the size and location of the metastasis, and other factors.

Typically, metastatic cancer requires systemic therapy, or medications given by mouth or injected into the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body, such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy. Other treatments may include immunotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of these.

Even if metastatic cancer has stopped responding to treatment, many therapies may help ease side effects and improve quality of life. Palliative treatments, which may be the same treatments used to treat cancer, aim to relieve symptoms and side effects.

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), we provide personalized treatment plans using conventional, evidence-based medical treatments to attack the cancer, while also supporting the patient’s quality of life by providing supportive care services designed to help reduce side effects. We offer comprehensive treatment programs for cancers that have spread to the brain, bone, liver and other areas.

Learn more about how we treat cancer.