Cancer is life-altering at any stage, and the subsequent cancer journey has the power to impact the physical, mental, and emotional health of patients and often those who love them. This is particularly true for patients who learn their cancer has metastasized or spread from the primary cancer location into other organs or areas of the body, which may indicate the disease will be a chronic condition.
Sometimes called stage IV or advanced cancer, metastatic cancer can travel through the bloodstream or lymph system and develop a tumor in a new location. While cancer can spread to many areas of the body, it most commonly spreads from the primary cancer site to the bone, liver, or lungs, as well as the lymph nodes, according to the National Cancer Institute.
When it comes to cancer – or any serious illness – it’s important to understand what a diagnosis means for your current and long-term health. Here are considerations if you or someone you know is diagnosed with metastatic cancer.
Recurrent cancer and metastatic cancer are not the same thing. Cancer recurrence is when cancer returns after treatment and after a period of time when no cancer was detected, whereas metastatic cancer means a primary cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Recurrent cancer may return where it previously occurred or in another part of the body. Recurrence can happen if cancer cells were resistant and survived the original treatment, developing into detectable tumors over time. Always ask your physician if you have questions about words used to describe your diagnosis.
Metastatic cancer may be managed as a chronic illness. Metastatic cancer impacts patients differently based on their individual disease and risk factors. According to the American Cancer Society, many types of metastatic cancer cannot be eliminated from a patient’s body. Learning that you or a loved one has metastatic cancer can be devastating, but treatment options are available. For patients with metastatic or advanced cancer, treatment may not make the cancer go away, but it can help in other ways such as slowing the growth of a cancerous tumor, relieving symptoms, improving quality of life as well as prolonging life.
The future of treatment for metastatic cancer is promising. Scientists, oncologists, and cancer researchers are focused on finding new and innovative ways to treat cancer and improve the lives of patients. This includes exploring the evolution of cancerous tumors and mutations from a primary cancer to metastatic cancer and working to better understand types of tumor growth and metastases. With better understanding of what drives tumor growth, spread, and resistance we develop more successful treatment. For example, metastatic and recurrent cancer are generally treated with systemic therapy – any treatment directed at destroying cancer cells throughout the body – such as chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, or a combination of several modalities. Some types of immunotherapies can target and attack certain cells in the body, enhancing the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. Some targeted therapies impair the growth process triggers that may be unique to some cancers.
Having cancer that spreads is understandably difficult to accept and to discuss. Your physician and care team should always serve as your best resources when you have questions or concerns about your health. At Texas Oncology, we want patients to feel empowered to make informed decisions about their care – and walk beside them every step of the way.
Ashwani Agarwal, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Corsicana, 301 Hospital Drive in Corsicana, Texas. For more information, visit TexasOncology.com.