Metastasis is a complication that makes cancer so deadly. This occurs when malignant cells break away from where they first formed, targeting nearby healthy tissue. The tumor cells can also proliferate regionally, to neighboring lymph nodes and organs. It can even invade distant parts of the body.
A Terminal Illness
For many types of cancer, the term “metastatic” is used to refer to fourth stage of the disease. This is the final and most critical phase of cancer where the disease has taken over the chest wall, abdomen, lining of the heart, liver, lymph nodes, or lungs.
Doctors observe the cells under a microscope and use other tests to see if they are metastatic. These cells will have features like that of the primary cancer but won’t be the same as the cells in the place where the cancer is found.
Primary vs Secondary Primary Cancer
Metastatic cancer takes the name of its source condition. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the lung, doctors will not start calling it lung cancer. Instead, it becomes metastatic breast cancer. They will then treat it as stage IV breast cancer.
Once the cancer has spread, it can be challenging to locate which part it came from. There are cases when people are diagnosed with metastatic cancer, but the primary cancer remains unknown. The medical term for this is cancer of unknown primary origin.
When a patient with a history of cancer develops a new type of tumor, it is known as a second primary cancer. These diseases are rare. Oftentimes, when a previously diagnosed patient develops cancer again, it means the first primary cancer has returned.
Common Sites Of Metastasis
Tumors can spread to almost any part of the body, although different types of cancer are more likely to grow into certain areas than others. The most common parts where malignant cells spread are lung, liver, and bone. Cancers of the kidney, thyroid, breast, bladder, as well as melanoma, tend to spread to these three main sites.
Some patients do not experience symptoms of metastatic cancer. When they do occur, their frequency and nature will vary on the location and size of the metastatic growths. Some warning signs of metastatic cancer include:
- Dizziness, headaches, or seizures, when cancer has spread to the brain
- Factures and pain, when the disease has invaded the bone
- Jaundice or swelling in the belly, when the tumors have reached the liver
- Shortness of breath, when growths start to appear in the lung
Cancer can be difficult to control once it spreads. Although current treatments can cure some forms of metastatic tumors, most cannot. Even so, treatments are available for all affected patients. The main goal of these solutions is to relieve symptoms or halt the growth of the disease. In some cases, therapy can help prolong survival.
Scientists continue to look for ways to kill or stop the growth and spread of tumor cells. One of the most promising therapies involves boosting the immune system to kill the disease naturally. As long as there is innovation in cancer treatment research, there is hope for people with metastatic cancer.