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  • Reviewed: 05/23/2011

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Metastatic Cancer

Key Points

  • Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from the place where it first started to another place in the body.
  • Metastatic cancer has the same name and same type of cancer cells as the original cancer.
  • The most common sites of cancer metastasis are the lungs, bones, and liver.
  • Treatment for metastatic cancer usually depends on the type of cancer and the size, location, and number of metastatic tumors.
  1. What is metastatic cancer?

    Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from the place where it first started to another place in the body. A tumor formed by metastatic cancer cells is called a metastatic tumor or a metastasis. The process by which cancer cells spread to other parts of the body is also called metastasis.

    Metastatic cancer has the same name and the same type of cancer cells as the original, or primary, cancer. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the lungs and forms a metastatic tumor is metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer.

    Under a microscope, metastatic cancer cells generally look the same as cells of the original cancer. Moreover, metastatic cancer cells and cells of the original cancer usually have some molecular features in common, such as the expression of certain proteins or the presence of specific chromosome changes.

    Although some types of metastatic cancer can be cured with current treatments, most cannot. Nevertheless, treatments are available for all patients with metastatic cancer. In general, the primary goal of these treatments is to control the growth of the cancer or to relieve symptoms caused by it. In some cases, metastatic cancer treatments may help prolong life. However, most people who die of cancer die of metastatic disease.

  2. Can any type of cancer form a metastatic tumor?

    Virtually all cancers, including cancers of the blood and the lymphatic system (leukemia, multiple myeloma, and lymphoma), can form metastatic tumors. Although rare, the metastasis of blood and lymphatic system cancers to the lungs, heart, central nervous system, and other tissues has been reported.

  3. Where does cancer spread?

    The most common sites of cancer metastasis are the lungs, bones, and liver. Although most cancers have the ability to spread to many different parts of the body, they usually spread to one site more often than others. The following table shows, in descending order from left to right, the three most common sites of metastasis, excluding lymph nodes, for several types of cancer:

    Cancer typeMain sites of metastasis
    BreastLungs, liver, bones
    ColonLiver, peritoneum, lungs
    KidneyLungs, liver, bones
    LungsAdrenal gland, liver, lungs


    Lungs, skin/muscle, liver

    OvaryPeritoneum, liver, lungs
    PancreasLiver, lungs, peritoneum
    ProstateBones, lungs, liver
    RectumLiver, lungs, adrenal gland
    StomachLiver, peritoneum, lungs
    ThyroidLungs, liver, bones
    UterusLiver, lungs, peritoneum

  4. How does cancer spread?

    Cancer cell metastasis usually involves the following steps:

    • Local invasion: Cancer cells invade nearby normal tissue.
    • Intravasation: Cancer cells invade and move through the walls of nearby lymph vessels or blood vessels.
    • Circulation: Cancer cells move through the lymphatic system and the bloodstream to other parts of the body.

    Metastatic cancer cells invade lymph vessels and blood vessels near a tumor and migrate to other parts of the body.

    • Arrest and extravasation: Cancer cells arrest, or stop moving, in small blood vessels called capillaries at a distant location. They then invade the walls of the capillaries and migrate into the surrounding tissue.
    • Proliferation: Cancer cells multiply at the distant location to form small tumors known as micrometastases.
    • Angiogenesis: Micrometastases stimulate the growth of new blood vessels to obtain a blood supply. A blood supply is needed to obtain the oxygen and nutrients necessary for continued tumor growth.

    Because cancers of the lymphatic system or the blood system are already present inside lymph vessels, lymph nodes, or blood vessels, not all of these steps are needed for their metastasis. Also, the lymphatic system drains into the blood system at two locations in the neck.

    The ability of a cancer cell to metastasize successfully depends on its individual properties; the properties of the noncancerous cells, including immune system cells, present at the original location; and the properties of the cells it encounters in the lymphatic system or the bloodstream and at the final destination in another part of the body. Not all cancer cells, by themselves, have the ability to metastasize. In addition, the noncancerous cells at the original location may be able to block cancer cell metastasis. Furthermore, successfully reaching another location in the body does not guarantee that a metastatic tumor will form. Metastatic cancer cells can lie dormant (not grow) at a distant site for many years before they begin to grow again, if at all.

  5. Does metastatic cancer have symptoms?

    Some people with metastatic tumors do not have symptoms. Their metastases are found by x-rays or other tests.

    When symptoms of metastatic cancer occur, the type and frequency of the symptoms will depend on the size and location of the metastasis. For example, cancer that spreads to the bones is likely to cause pain and can lead to bone fractures. Cancer that spreads to the brain can cause a variety of symptoms, including headaches, seizures, and unsteadiness. Shortness of breath may be a sign of lung metastasis. Abdominal swelling or jaundice (yellowing of the skin) can indicate that cancer has spread to the liver.

    Sometimes a person’s original cancer is discovered only after a metastatic tumor causes symptoms. For example, a man whose prostate cancer has spread to the bones in his pelvis may have lower back pain (caused by the cancer in his bones) before he experiences any symptoms from the original tumor in his prostate.

  6. Can someone have a metastatic tumor without having a primary cancer?

    No. A metastatic tumor is always caused by cancer cells from another part of the body.

    In most cases, when a metastatic tumor is found first, the primary cancer can also be found. The search for the primary cancer may involve lab tests, x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and other procedures.

    However, in some patients, a metastatic tumor is diagnosed but the primary tumor cannot be found, despite extensive tests, because it either is too small or has completely regressed. The pathologist knows that the diagnosed tumor is a metastasis because the cells do not look like those of the organ or tissue in which the tumor was found. Doctors refer to the primary cancer as unknown or occult (hidden), and the patient is said to have cancer of unknown primary origin (CUP).

    Because diagnostic techniques are constantly improving, the number of cases of CUP is going down. More information about this can be found in the CUP PDQ® summary, which is part of NCI’s comprehensive cancer information database.

  7. If a person who was previously treated for cancer gets diagnosed with cancer a second time, is the new cancer a new primary cancer or metastatic cancer?

    The cancer may be a new primary cancer, but, in most cases, it is metastatic cancer.

  8. What treatments are used for metastatic cancer?

    Metastatic cancer may be treated with systemic therapy (chemotherapy, biological therapy, targeted therapy, hormonal therapy), local therapy (surgery, radiation therapy), or a combination of these treatments. The choice of treatment generally depends on the type of primary cancer; the size, location, and number of metastatic tumors; the patient’s age and general health; and the types of treatment the patient has had in the past. In patients with CUP, it is possible to treat the disease even though the primary cancer has not been found.

  9. Are new treatments for metastatic cancer being developed?

    Yes, researchers are studying new ways to kill or stop the growth of primary cancer cells and metastatic cancer cells, including new ways to boost the strength of immune responses against tumors. In addition, researchers are trying to find ways to disrupt individual steps in the metastatic process.

    Before any new treatment can be made widely available to patients, it must be studied in clinical trials (research studies) and found to be safe and effective in treating disease. NCI and many other organizations sponsor clinical trials that take place at hospitals, universities, medical schools, and cancer centers around the country. Clinical trials are a critical step in improving cancer care. The results of previous clinical trials have led to progress not only in the treatment of cancer but also in the detection, diagnosis, and prevention of the disease. Patients interested in taking part in a clinical trial should talk with their doctor.

Selected References
  1. Patel JK, Didolkar MS, Pickren JW, Moore RH. Metastatic pattern of malignant melanoma: a study of 216 autopsy cases. American Journal of Surgery 1978; 135(6):807–810. [PubMed Abstract]
  2. Disibio G, French SW. Metastatic patterns of cancer: results from a large autopsy study. Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine 2008; 132(6):931–939. [PubMed Abstract]
  3. Talmadge JE, Fidler IJ. AACR centennial series: the biology of cancer metastasis: historical perspective. Cancer Research 2010; 70(14):5649–5669. [PubMed Abstract]
  4. Coghlin C, Murray GI. Current and emerging concepts in tumour metastasis. Journal of Pathology 2010; 222(1):1–15. [PubMed Abstract]
  5. Viadana E, Bross ID, Pickren JW. An autopsy study of the metastatic patterns of human leukemias. Oncology 1978; 35(2):87–96. [PubMed Abstract]
  6. Otto CM. Cardiac masses and potential cardiac “source of embolus.” In: Textbook of Clinical Echocardiography. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier, Inc., 2009.
  7. Schluterman KO, Fassas AB, Van Hemert RL, Harik SI. Multiple myeloma invasion of the central nervous system. Archives of Neurology 2004; 61(9):1423–1429. [PubMed Abstract]
  8. Grier J, Batchelor T. Metastatic neurologic complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Current Oncology Reports 2005; 7(1):55–60. [PubMed Abstract]
  9. Aragon-Ching JB, Zujewski J. CNS metastasis: an old problem in a new guise. Clinical Cancer Research 2007; 13(6):1644–1647. [PubMed Abstract]

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