Metastatic Cancer: What Patients and Their Families Should Know
When you or someone you love receives a cancer diagnosis, you may be overwhelmed by the many words used to describe the disease. Two common terms you may hear are “metastasis” and “metastasized,” but what do they mean?
Jason A. Incorvati, MD, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, explains exactly what these terms refer to and what patients and their loved ones should know about them:
What is metastatic cancer?
At a basic level, metastatic cancer refers to cancer that has spread to a different part of the body from where it originated. An example would be breast cancer that has spread (metastasized) to the liver.
Metastases occur when cancer cells break away from the main tumor. They either grow nearby or enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system. These superhighways allow the cancerous cells to travel just about anywhere in the body (where they can settle and grow).
Most types of cancer can metastasize, but some cancers are more likely to spread than others. This depends on several factors, including the initial size of the tumor and how quickly it’s growing.
Cancer can also metastasize at any time. Your risk varies, but it can even develop years after treatment for the original disease.
What do cancer metastases mean for patients?
While some cases of metastatic cancer can be cured, many can only be treated. Common therapies for metastatic cancer are specifically aimed at reducing symptoms and improving quality of life, but they cannot fully get rid of the disease. Many of these treatments can keep the cancer under control for a long time, allowing patients to live with it like a chronic condition.
“In general, when we’re dealing with metastatic disease, it’s treatable but not curable,” Dr. Incorvati said. “There are some exceptions—for example, with melanoma and HER2-positive breast cancer, we can cure some patients. We’re also now seeing some cancers that didn’t have the best prognoses in the past turn into chronic, treatable diseases.”
The treatment recommendations you receive are dependent on the type of cancer you have, how much it has spread, and to where. Your age and overall health matter, too.
Very often, cancer that has metastasized is treated with systemic therapy, which affects the entire body and includes chemotherapy and other medications (such as targeted therapies, hormonal therapies, and immunotherapies).
Why is it important to seek specialized care if you have metastatic cancer?
No matter where you are in your cancer journey, you can benefit from care at a center that specializes in treating cancer.
However, for people diagnosed with metastatic cancer, it is especially important. Designated comprehensive cancer centers offer teams of physicians who are specialized in your specific type of cancer. Along with offering the latest standard of care therapies, they offer a wide array of clinical trials. These trials give patients with metastatic disease more options for treatment. In fact, the latest breakthroughs in treating metastatic cancer have come from clinical trials.
“At NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers, you have access to a wide array of research studies,” Dr. Incorvati said. “At Fox Chase specifically, we also have a high level of expertise tailoring treatment plans to our individual patients.”