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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

What Is Metastatic Cancer? How Is It Treated? And How Do You Cope?

Written by Oluwatoyin Joy Oke on 
6th April, 2022
Updated: 9th September, 2023
Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

The most fearful word that follows the diagnosis of cancer is hearing that your cancer has spread.

It can be so shocking to learn that your cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Or that it came back after treatment. You may feel differently or may be overwhelmed with different emotions. This may include fear, shocks, disbelief, and grief.

In this article we discuss what Metastatic Cancer is, its treatment, its diagnosis, how it spreads and suggestions on how to cope.

What does metastatic cancer mean?

Metastatic tumor or Metastatic cancer, is used to describe cancer that have spread to other part of the body. Metastatic cancer can also be called advanced cancer or stage 4 cancer (from now onwards in this article we will use stage IV, advanced cancer and metastatic cancer to mean the same things). The term your doctor will use to describe metastatic cancer, is your cancer has metastasized.

All types of cancer can metastasize. Cancer that has metastasized has the same features as a primary cell, and not like the cell they spread to. This is how your doctor knows where your cancer spreads from.

According to a study, from National Cancer Institute, metastatic tumors are serious because of their ability to break free from the primary tumor and travel to other parts of the body to form metastatic tumors or cancer.

Metastasis can occur at the time of diagnosis or it may occur after treatment ends.

What is the process by which cancer spreads to other parts of the body?

Cancer cells break to other part of the body through the blood (circulatory system) and the lymph nodes (lymphatic system).

When cancer cell develop, they start replicating and don't know when to stop or die. Cancer cells do not have adhesion properties and can’t stick together like normal cells. This makes them easy to metastasize or spread, by moving out of the primary site through the blood vessel and the lymph nodes.

Cancer cell also have the ability to form their own blood vessels which help with their growth. This helps them to obtain all the nutrients they need to invade or spread to surrounding cells and tissues of the body. The active cancer cells then have the ability to enter into the blood vessel and lymph nodes and then travel from there to other parts of the body.

For example prostate cancer cell can spread from the primary cancer site that is the prostate, and move to other parts of the body like the bone, brain.

So if metastasis are present it simply means that a cancer cell is found in a separate part of the body from where it originated.

What Is Metastasis/Metastatic Cancer? And How To Deal With It.

Metastasis happens in three main ways

Through tissues: metastatic cancer breaks from its primary cancer site and forms new cancer in the nearby or regional tissue.

Through the lymphatic system: metastatic cancer makes its way into the nearby lymph node. From there it is transported to new areas in the body.

Through the circulatory system: the cancer cell moves into the bloodstream and carries around the body. They can then form new tumors then they grow and spread.

What are the symptoms of metastatic cancer?

The symptoms of metastatic cancer vary greatly depending on the type of cancer and where it has spread. For cancer that has spread to the brain, common symptoms include headaches, seizures, and vision problems. For cancer that has spread to the liver, people may have jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), swelling in the legs, fatigue, weight loss, or loss of appetite.

In some instances, the cancer may spread after a person has already been treated for the original tumor. Metastatic tumors may appear months or even years after first treatments. In other cases, people may not be aware of having cancer at all until they notice symptoms from metastatic tumors.

How metastatic cancer is diagnosed

There is no specific test used to diagnose metastatic cancer and diagnosing metastatic cancer can involve various tests, including laboratory tests that analyze samples of blood, urine or other fluids, and imaging tests that create pictures of the inside of the body.

Sometimes, doctors may use these lab tests to look for tumor markers. Cancer cells or other cells may produce specific substances that help indicate the presence of cancer in your body. These substances are called tumor markers and some tumor markers can be used to help determine whether cancer has metastasized.

For example:

  • Carcinoembryonic antigen, or CEA (for colorectal and some other cancers)
  • CA-125 (for ovarian cancer)
  • Prostate-specific antigen, or PSA
  • Alpha-fetoprotein, or AFP (for liver, ovarian and testicular cancers)

Imaging tests allow doctors to view the inside of different parts of the body using various techniques and can help when diagnosing metastatic cancer. Some common imaging tests include:

Take Your Time To Always Care For Yourself At All Times

What determines if your cancer will spread?

Your cancer spreading depends on the following, but is not limited to them:

  • The types of primary cancer.
  • How fast the cancer is growing.
  • The treatment you underwent.
  • Other factors about the behavior of cancer that your doctor may find.

Types of metastatic cancer

Cancer that spreads to other areas is called the same name as the primary or original cancer. For example, Breast Cancer that has spread to other parts of the body such as the liver, lung, etc. referred to as metastatic breast cancer and will be treated as breast cancer, not lung cancer.

There is also what is called Cancer of Unknown Primary Original. This cancer is rare cancer in which malignant cells are found in the body but the primary place of the cancer is not known. Your doctors may find the place where cancer has metastasis but may not find the area of primary cancer.

What sites can cancer can spread to?

Cancer can spread to almost any part of the body, although different types of cancer are more likely to spread to certain areas than others. The most common sites where cancer spreads are bone, liver, and lung.

The following list shows the most common sites of metastasis, not including the lymph nodes, for some common cancers:

  • Breast cancer can spread to the bone, brain, liver, lungs
  • Lung Cancer can spread to the bones, liver, adrenal gland, or brain.
  • Prostate Cancer can spread to the bones
  • Colon and rectal cancer can spread to the liver and lungs.
  • Ovary cancer can spread to the liver, lung, and the peritoneum
  • Melanoma cancer can spread to the bone, brain, liver, lungs, and the skin/muscle

How to prevent metastatic cancer?

It is not easy to prevent metastatic tumors for now. The best way to keep your cancer from spreading to other parts of the body is often to remove the primary tumors when they are still small. This means for example, removing breast through total mastectomy will help prevent recurrence of cancer which may lead to cancer spreading to other part of the body.

Can metastatic cancer be treated?

Metastatic cancer treatment may be a little different from normal cancer treatment. The treatment depends on your primary cancer, the origin or the size and location of the tumor. It also depends on your overall health conditions, your age, and your medical history.

Treatment for Stage 4 cancer is mainly to slow the growth or the spread of cancer. Before you start your treatment ask your doctor the goal of your treatment and the likely side-effects you may experience. The treatment can help prolong your life, reduce pain and increase your quality of life.

The treatment goal may be broken into 4 main parts which includes

  1. Reduce the side effects of your metastasis cancer to the barest minimum.
  2. Reduce the side effects of your metastasis cancer treatment.
  3. Ensure you can live as long as possible with your metastatic cancer.
  4. Ensure you get to enjoy the best quality of life.

Always remember you have the ultimate right to all of the goals. So take your time to talk to your health care team about the most important goal to you.

The following are the treatment options available:

Chemotherapy makes use of potent drugs to manage the growth of metastasis cancer. Chemo drugs enter your bloodstream. Then it travels around your body to destroy fast-spreading cancer cells or just slow their growth.

Hormone Therapy stops the hormone that is feeding cancer and making it spread.

Immunotherapy. Major advances in cancer immunotherapy have dramatically expanded the potential to manipulate immune cells in cancer patients with metastatic disease to counteract cancer spread and extend patient lifespan.

Radiotherapy is used to slow the growth of metastasis cancer. It can also, be used to relieve pain.

Surgery is carried out if the cancer is causing pressure on some organ or causing your pain.

Targeted therapy. Targeted cancer therapies are drugs that target specific parts of cancer cells, such as proteins or genes, that help cancers grow and spread. They also may go after other types of cells that help cancers grow and spread. 

Palliative care is focused on helping gain comfort and relief from symptoms. It will also clarify treatment goals and provide supportive care. It also makes sure you and your family are fully informed on your metastatic cancer diagnosis and the likely outcome.

It is very important to know your options, before you make the best decision for yourself. Try to work closely with your oncology team. They will be able to give you their recommendations. They may even give you information about clinical trials on metastasis. Keep in mind that your treatment can change anytime to meet your present need.

Is metastatic cancer curable?

When cancer metastasize, it is always very difficult for it to be cured. At the stage of writing this article treatment options are palliative and intended only to reduce pain and make the patient comfortable and improve the quality of life, not to eliminate the disease. It should be noted that metastatic cancer are usually terminal cancers. But great advances are occurring in medical research and perhaps by the time you read this article this will no longer be true.

If You Don'T Want To Talk About Your Feelings Or You Don'T Know How To Express Yourself Using Words, Writing Can Help You Relieve Some Of Your Bottled-Up Emotions.

How to deal with advanced cancer

Having to live with Stage 4 cancer can be very challenging. You have to balance work, doctor’s appointments with treatment. There are also side effects such as fatigue, pain, and others that can limit what you can do. The tips below can help you deal well with metastatic cancer.

Ask for help

You may have to delegate some of your duties to your partner, older children, and friends. You may need to communicate with them so that they may know your needs and limitations. If you don't have a big support network at home you could consider asking for help from local resources like your place of worship or community organization. You can also make use of the hospital's social worker who can help provide the necessary help.

Focus on your needs and delegate

Think well about what your major needs are. The ones you can handle and those you can ask friends and family to take care of. Also, think about people in your support group and what they are good at, then delegate duties based on that. When you delegate duties you will be able to better cope with your treatment of metastasis cancer.

Accept offers of help

When your family or friends ask questions like “Is there anything you need help with” comfortably say yes. You can make a list of what you need help with within a week and if someone offers to help, take them up on it. If your loved one fails to follow up on their offer to help, you may need to remind them of their offer. Accepting help makes it easier for you to live each day with your advanced cancer.

Always ask your doctor for help

If your treatment is negatively impacting the quality of life ask your doctor for help with managing them. Make sure you don't suffer in silence. Get the needed medication that can help relieve your pain and improve your ability to cope with Stage 1V cancer.

Don’t blame yourself but take good care of yourself

Remember you did nothing wrong. Take your time to always care for yourself at all times.

Maintain a good diet at all times

Ensure you eat well and eat a healthy diet. You can speak to your doctor about the diet you should follow.

Get financial help

Treatment and other of Metastasis Cancer can put a financial strain on you and your family.  Having good health coverage can be of help. But even with that, financial resources can become low if you have to stop work or reduce work. So if you need financial help you can check this site to gain access to such help.

Exercise

This can help boost your mood and give you energy. Exercise at your own pace. Talk to your health team to determine which one suits you best.

Do research

Being informed can help you cope with anxiety and stress. But if that doesn’t work for you. Ask your friend or family member to get all the information you need on your metastatic cancer. They can tell you with the important things you need to know from the search.

Keep a journal or a diary

If you don't want to talk about your feelings or you don't know how to express yourself using words, writing can help you relieve some of your bottled-up emotions. You can write down how your treatment makes you feel each time. You can also write out questions you want to ask your healthcare team.

Do things yourself

If you feel being independent will help make you feel more in control you can try doing some tasks yourself. But a word of caution; don't overdo anything. Don’t push yourself to exhaustion.

Try to live in the present

Your diagnosis with Metastasis Cancer brings with it a lot of uncertainty. To help cope with this, live each day at a time. To reduce stress make your plan each day. It will also help if you leave the past in the past and focus on the future.

Talk about your feeling with your friend or support group

Make sure you don’t bottle up your emotions.  Try and connect with people passing through Metastasis cancer like yourself. You will feel much better when you express your emotions.

Plan ahead

To put your mind at rest, make medical and legal plans, not minding how long you get to live. Having plans such as this can help put your mind at rest and deal well with advanced cancer

Conclusion

Never allow stage IV cancer to define you. Always remember you are still in control of your actions and choices. You can choose how you want to move forward with your care. Talk to your oncology about the symptoms you are experiencing.

Don’t rush into anything. Take your time to ask questions and go with someone when visiting your doctor. With the information about metastatic cancer from this article, I hope it goes a long way in helping out in any way.

Gifts for people living at stage IV Cancer

Further reading

30 Things You Should Know About Living With Cancer

What To Expect From Radiotherapy Treatment And How To Take Care

How To Help Someone Who Is Bedbound / Bedridden

Chemotherapy Side Effects: Dealing With Short And Long Term Issues

Turning 50, Single Mum With Metastatic Breast Cancer On Top

We strongly advise you to talk with a health care professional about specific medical conditions and treatments. The information on our site is meant to be helpful and educational but is not a substitute for medical advice.

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