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Metastatic cancer, also known as stage IV cancer, occurs when cancer cells spread from their original location (the primary site) to other parts of the body (secondary sites). This process is known as metastasis.

These secondary cancer sites are referred to as metastases and are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the lungs is still breast cancer, not lung cancer.

In metastasis, cancer cells break away from the primary tumor and travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other parts of the body.

These cells can then grow and form new tumors in organs such as the bones, liver, lungs, or brain.

What types of cancer are most likely to metastasize?

Certain types of cancer are more prone to metastasize than others. The likelihood of metastasis often depends on the cancer’s type, stage, and other biological characteristics. Some cancers known for their tendency to spread include:

  1. Breast Cancer: Breast cancer can metastasize to the bones, liver, lungs, and brain. The likelihood of metastasis increases with later stages of the disease.
  2. Lung Cancer: Both small cell and non-small cell lung cancers are known to metastasize, often to the brain, bones, liver, and adrenal glands.
  3. Prostate Cancer: Prostate cancer commonly spreads to the bones and lymph nodes.
  4. Colorectal Cancer: This cancer type often metastasizes to the liver and lungs.
  5. Melanoma: As a type of skin cancer, melanoma can spread to many parts of the body, including the lungs, liver, bones, brain, and other areas of the skin.
  6. Pancreatic Cancer: Pancreatic cancer frequently spreads to the liver, lungs, and peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity).
  7. Bladder Cancer: Bladder cancer can metastasize to the bones, liver, and lungs.
  8. Renal Cell Carcinoma (Kidney Cancer): This type of cancer often spreads to the lungs, bones, liver, and brain.
  9. Ovarian Cancer: Ovarian cancer commonly spreads within the peritoneal cavity and can metastasize to the liver and lungs.

Metastasis depends not only on the cancer type but also on factors like the genetic and molecular characteristics of the cancer, the time of diagnosis, and how well the cancer responds to treatment.

Early detection and advances in targeted therapies and immunotherapies have improved outcomes for many patients, even those with cancers that have a higher risk of metastasis.

What are the most common sites of metastatic cancer?

The most common sites for metastatic cancer include the bones, liver, lungs, brain, and lymph nodes. Bone metastasis is often associated with breast, prostate, and lung cancers, leading to pain and fractures.

  1. The liver is a frequent target for metastases from colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancers, causing symptoms like jaundice.
  2. Lung metastases, seen in cancers like breast and colon, can result in respiratory issues.
  3. Brain metastases, common in lung, breast, and melanoma, can cause neurological symptoms.
  4. Lymph nodes are typical initial sites for the spread of various cancers.

The pattern of metastasis varies with the type of primary cancer.

What are the symptoms of metastatic cancer?

Symptoms associated with metastatic cancer can include the following:

Pain (Bone Metastasis)

When cancer spreads to the bones, it can cause significant pain, often severe and worsening over time. Common sites include the spine, pelvis, ribs, arms, and legs. The pain may intensify with movement and can lead to fractures in weakened bones.

Neurological Symptoms (Brain Metastasis)

Metastasis to the brain can manifest in various ways depending on the affected brain region. Symptoms can include persistent headaches (often worse in the morning or when lying down), seizures, difficulty with speech or understanding language, vision changes, problems with balance or coordination, and cognitive impairments or personality changes.

Shortness of Breath (Lung Metastasis)

When cancer spreads to the lungs, it can lead to respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath, persistent cough (sometimes with blood), chest pain, and wheezing.

These symptoms occur due to the obstruction or inflammation of the airways or the buildup of fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion).

Jaundice or Abdominal Pain (Liver Metastasis)

Liver metastases can lead to jaundice, characterized by yellowing of the skin and eyes, due to the liver’s impaired ability to process bilirubin. Other symptoms include abdominal pain or swelling, itchy skin, dark urine, and pale stools.
Advanced liver metastasis can lead to liver failure, causing more severe symptoms like confusion and a buildup of toxins in the body.

Swelling or Lumps (Lymph Node Metastasis)

Enlarged lymph nodes can occur near the original cancer site or in other parts of the body. These can often be felt as lumps under the skin, especially in the neck, armpits, or groin.

Lymph node metastases might also cause swelling in nearby areas due to lymphatic obstruction.


A very common symptom in cancer patients, fatigue in metastatic cancer is often more pronounced and not relieved by rest. It’s a persistent, overwhelming sense of tiredness that can significantly impact daily activities.

Weight Loss and Loss of Appetite

Unexplained weight loss and a decrease in appetite are hallmark signs of advanced cancer, including metastatic cancer.

This can be due to a combination of factors like altered metabolism, decreased food intake due to nausea or pain, and the energy demands of the growing cancer.

Nausea or Vomiting

Especially common with brain metastases, these symptoms can also result from general systemic effects of cancer, treatment side effects, or the pressure of tumors on the gastrointestinal tract.

These symptoms can vary greatly depending on the individual, the type of cancer, and where it has spread.

What causes metastatic cancer and how does it spread?

Metastatic cancer happens when cancer cells from the original tumor move to other parts of the body. These cells travel through blood or lymph fluids. Once they reach a new place in the body, they start growing and form new tumors. This spreading happens because of changes in the cancer cells and how they interact with the body. Metastatic cancer is more complicated to treat because it spreads to different areas.

What tests will my healthcare provider use to diagnose metastatic cancer?

Imaging Tests:

  1. CT Scan (Computed Tomography): Provides detailed cross-sectional images of the body and can detect metastases in various organs.
  2. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): Particularly useful for detecting brain and spinal cord metastases.
  3. PET Scan (Positron Emission Tomography): Helps to identify areas of cancer spread by detecting cells with high metabolic rates.
  4. Bone Scan: Used to find cancer that has spread to the bones.
  5. X-rays: Can be used for detecting bone metastasis and lung metastasis.

Biopsy: In a biopsy, a small sample of tissue is taken from a suspected metastatic site and examined under a microscope. This helps in confirming the presence of cancer cells and understanding their nature.

Blood Tests:

  1. Tests that look for tumor markers (substances produced by cancer cells or by the body in response to cancer) can provide clues about metastasis.
  2. Liver function tests and other routine blood tests can also indicate abnormal functioning of organs where metastasis might be present.

Endoscopy: For gastrointestinal cancers, procedures like a colonoscopy or endoscopy can be used to examine internal organs.

Ultrasound: Sometimes used to look at specific organs like the liver or kidneys for signs of cancer spread. The choice of tests will be tailored to your specific situation, considering the type of cancer you have and the symptoms you’re experiencing.

How is metastatic cancer treated?

The treatment options for metastatic cancer are as follows:

Systemic Therapies

  1. Chemotherapy: This involves the use of powerful drugs that circulate throughout the body to kill rapidly dividing cells, including cancer cells. Different drugs and combinations are used depending on the cancer type. Side effects can include nausea, hair loss, fatigue, and increased infection risk due to lowered white blood cell counts.
  2. Hormone Therapy: This is effective in cancers that grow in response to hormones, like certain breast and prostate cancers. The therapy blocks the body’s ability to produce hormones or interferes with hormone action. Side effects might include hot flashes, fatigue, and bone thinning.
  3. Targeted Therapy: These drugs target specific pathways or mutations in cancer cells. For example, HER2-targeted therapies in breast cancer or EGFR inhibitors in some lung cancers. They generally have different side effects than chemotherapy, often including skin rashes, diarrhea, and liver function changes.
  4. Immunotherapy: It boosts the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Types include checkpoint inhibitors, which remove brakes on immune cells, and CAR T-cell therapy, a personalized treatment where a patient’s T cells are modified to attack cancer cells. Side effects can vary but may involve immune-related reactions affecting different body parts.

Radiation Therapy

This uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy or damage cancer cells. It’s often localized to the area with metastases, like the brain or bones, to relieve symptoms such as pain or neurological issues. Side effects depend on the treatment area and can include skin changes, fatigue, and, for brain radiation, hair loss and cognitive effects.


Surgery for metastatic cancer is less common but may be used to remove isolated metastases, such as a single metastatic tumor in the lung or liver. This can help alleviate symptoms and, in some cases, improve outcomes. Risks of surgery include typical surgical risks like infection and longer recovery times.

Supportive Care

This encompasses various treatments to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. Pain management, bone-strengthening drugs (like bisphosphonates), anti-nausea medications, and nutritional support are included. This aspect of care is vital for maintaining the patient’s comfort and overall well-being.

Clinical Trials

These offer access to new therapies under investigation. Patients can access cutting-edge treatments that might be more effective than standard options. Participation in a clinical trial is a critical decision and should be made in consultation with healthcare providers.

Can I prevent metastatic cancer?

Preventing metastatic cancer can be challenging, as it often involves factors beyond individual control, such as the biology of the cancer and genetic predispositions.

However, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of cancer metastasis and improve overall health:

  1. Early Detection: Regular screenings and prompt attention to any symptoms can lead to early detection of cancer, when it is most treatable and before it has a chance to spread. Follow recommended screening guidelines for cancers such as breast, colon, and cervical cancer.
  2. Healthy Lifestyle: Adopting a healthy lifestyle can lower the risk of cancer and its progression. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol consumption, and avoiding tobacco use.
  3. Follow Treatment Plans: Adhering to prescribed cancer treatments is crucial. For some cancers, specific therapies can reduce the risk of recurrence or metastasis. This might include hormone therapy for breast cancer or adjuvant chemotherapy for colon cancer.
  4. Regular Monitoring: After initial cancer treatment, regular follow-up with healthcare providers is important for detecting any signs of cancer recurrence or metastasis as early as possible.
  5. Manage Other Health Conditions: Controlling other health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, can improve overall health and potentially reduce the risk of cancer progression.
  6. Genetic Counseling: If you have a family history of certain types of cancer, genetic counseling can help assess your risk and guide in taking preventive measures.
  7. Avoid Environmental and Occupational Hazards: Minimize exposure to known carcinogens in the environment and workplace, such as radiation and certain chemicals.
  8. Stay Informed and Engaged: Keeping informed about your health and being an active participant in medical decisions can lead to better outcomes.

While these measures can reduce the risk of cancer and its spread, they cannot guarantee prevention.

What can I expect if I have metastatic cancer?

If you have metastatic cancer, your treatment plan might include different kinds of therapies like chemotherapy or radiation. You’ll have regular check-ups and tests to see how the treatment is working. Managing pain and other symptoms will be important.

You might also need help with feelings and emotions, as it can be tough to deal with this kind of cancer. Palliative care will be a big part of your treatment to make you more comfortable.

You may also have the chance to try new treatments through clinical trials. Support from doctors, family, and friends will help you through this time. It’s good to keep talking to your doctors about how you’re feeling and what you need.

How do I take care of myself?

Taking care of yourself, especially when dealing with a health condition or stress, involves several key aspects:

  1. Follow Medical Advice: Adhere to the treatment plan and medications prescribed by your healthcare providers. Attend all medical appointments and stay proactive in your healthcare management.
  2. Nutrition: Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Proper nutrition supports your body’s healing and strength.
  3. Physical Activity: Engage in regular physical activity as recommended by your healthcare provider. This could include walking, gentle stretching, or other exercises tailored to your ability and condition.
  4. Rest and Sleep: Ensure you get enough rest and quality sleep. Good sleep helps with healing, energy levels, and overall well-being.
  5. Stress Management: Practice stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or mindfulness. Managing stress is important for both mental and physical health.
  6. Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Proper hydration is crucial for all body functions.
  7. Avoid Harmful Substances: Limit or avoid alcohol and tobacco use, as they can interfere with the effectiveness of treatments and overall health.
  8. Emotional Support: Seek support from friends, family, support groups, or mental health professionals. Talking about your feelings and experiences can be therapeutic.
  9. Hobbies and Interests: Engage in activities that you enjoy and that give you a sense of fulfillment and happiness.
  10. Stay Informed: Educate yourself about your health condition, but avoid overwhelming yourself with too much information at once. Discuss any concerns or questions with your healthcare provider.
  11. Positive Mindset: Try to maintain a positive outlook. While it’s normal to have ups and downs, focusing on positive aspects can improve your overall quality of life.

Schedule appointment about Metastasis

When scheduling your appointment, ensure you have your medical records, including any previous tests or treatments related to your diagnosis, readily available. It’s helpful to prepare a list of questions or concerns you have about metastasis to discuss during your appointment.

Remember, early and effective communication with your healthcare provider is key to managing metastatic cancer. This appointment is an important step in understanding your condition better and exploring the most suitable treatment options for your needs.

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