April 07, 2022

Understanding How Cancer Can Spread

Woman with Microscope

Clinically reviewed by Mary Lindsay Merrell, MSN, RN OCN

In healthy tissue, cells divide, grow, perform their function, and die according to directions from genes in their nuclei. Cancer develops when damage to the genes causes cells to divide and grow out of control, creating tumors. In some cases, cancer that develops in one area of the body spreads to others.

This article explains how cancer moves from one place to another within the body. 

What Is Metastatic Cancer?

Cancer spreads from where it originated to other organs and tissues when cells from the tumor break off, and the blood or lymphatic system carries them to a new location. Often, the cells land in the next organ or lymph node “downstream” from the point of origin. 

This process is called metastasis, and cancers that exhibit this behavior are called metastatic cancers. The terms “advanced cancer” and “Stage IV cancer” are also used. 

Most cancers can become metastatic. However, some are more prone to this behavior than others, including:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Bone cancer
  • Liver cancer

Cancers are referred to by their point of origin or “primary location.” So, if breast cancer metastasizes (spreads) to the lungs, it’s still called breast cancer and not lung cancer. 

How Fast Does Cancer Spread?

How fast cancer spreads depends on the cancer type. Cancer cells that have more genetic damage (poorly differentiated) typically grow faster than cells with less genetic damage (well-differentiated). 

Some cancers that generally grow slower include chronic lymphocytic leukemia, most types of prostate cancer, and colon and rectal cancer.

Examples of fast-growing cancers include lung cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and large B-cell lymphoma.

Which Type of Cancer Spreads Fastest?

The fastest-moving cancers are pancreatic, brain, esophageal, liver, and melanoma. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most dangerous types of cancer because it’s fast-moving, and there’s no method of early detection.

What Are the Symptoms of Metastatic Cancer?

Metastatic cancer may cause no symptoms initially. If signs develop, they’re related to the affected area. For example, if cancer spreads to the brain, a patient may experience headaches, vision problems, speech difficulties, etc. Metastatic cancer in the lungs may cause a cough, shortness of breath, or coughing up blood. 

In the liver, metastatic cancer can result in pain, nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), and other symptoms. In bones, the first sign of metastatic cancer is typically a break. 

How Is Metastatic Cancer Detected and Treated?

There’s no specific test for metastatic cancer. Doctors diagnose it using procedures based on your symptoms. The assessments can include:

  • Blood tests to check for issues like elevated liver enzymes
  • Imaging like ultrasound, CT scans, MRIs, bone scans, and PET scans to look for abnormalities, including tumors, fluid accumulations, etc.
  • Tests for tumor “markers” (substances in the blood, urine, or tissues that can be elevated if a specific type of cancer is present)

Treatment for metastatic cancer is based on its primary location. In other words, lung cancer that has spread to the liver is treated no differently there than in the lungs. The cancer cells are the same — only the location has changed. 

Is Metastatic Cancer Curable?

Some types of metastatic cancer, like colon cancer and melanoma, are potentially curable. Most are not. Treatment focuses on slowing the cancer’s growth, minimizing symptoms, and maximizing quality of life. People with metastatic cancer may live for several years after diagnosis, depending on the type of cancer, its location, and other factors.

Living with Metastatic Cancer

People with metastatic cancer face many challenges besides their disease. Knowing that your time is limited can lead to intense sadness, anger, frustration, etc. You may also be concerned that your cancer will grow faster than anticipated. And the cost, logistics, and other aspects of cancer care can be a source of worry. 

Consequently, doctors advise patients with metastatic cancer to talk with a counselor. Expressing your fears and concerns can help you manage these and other complex emotions more effectively. Plus, a counselor can tell you about other physical and mental health support resources and encourage you to use them. 

Learn More About Cancer Care at Baptist Health

Being told you have metastatic cancer can be devastating. If you or someone you know has received that diagnosis, you can get world-class treatment and compassionate care at Baptist Health. 

Learn more about our cancer care services today. And if you’re experiencing what you think may be cancer symptoms, have a family history of cancer, or are concerned that you may have cancer, take a health risk assessment to determine if you’re at risk for cancer.

Learn More.