Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from its original location to a distant part of the body. Most metastatic cancers are not curable, although people with well-controlled metastatic cancer can live for many years.

Metastatic cancers are serious and difficult to treat. While most are incurable, they can be managed for months or even years with the right treatment. And certain kinds of metastatic cancer, such as testicular cancer, can be curable.

This article takes a closer look at metastatic cancers, where they’re likely to spread, and why the outlook for people with metastatic cancers can vary so much.

The first cancerous tumor that develops is the primary tumor. This tumor can grow big enough to push into nearby tissue and organs. Also, cells can break away from the tumor and spread through tissue to form new tumors in nearby tissues, organs, or lymph nodes.

Cancer cells can also enter your bloodstream or lymphatic system. From there, they can travel just about anywhere in your body. When tumors form in a distant part of your body, you have metastatic cancer. For many types of cancer, metastatic cancer is also known as stage 4 cancer.

Most of the time, metastatic cancer is not curable, though many cases are treatable. People with well-controlled metastatic cancer can live for many years.

Advanced vs. metastatic cancer

Advanced cancer is typically cancer that cannot be cured. Advanced cancer can be locally advanced or metastatic. For example, some large brain tumors may be advanced even though they have not spread beyond the brain.

Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from the original tumor to a distant part of the body. But some metastatic cancers are not advanced. For example, some instances of metastatic testicular cancer are curable, according to the American Cancer Society.

Some doctors may use these words interchangeably, so it’s important to ask what they mean by “advanced” or “metastatic” cancer.

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All cancers can metastasize, and metastasis is a key cause of death from cancer. Together, these cancers are responsible for almost 50% of all cancer deaths:

Cancer can spread almost anywhere, but different types of cancer tend to spread to certain places. The following are the most common sites of metastasis, according to the National Cancer Institute:

Metastatic cancer typeMain sites of metastasis
bladderbone, liver, lung
breastbone, brain, liver, lung
colonliver, lung, peritoneum (the membrane that lines your abdominal cavity)
kidneyadrenal gland, bone, brain, liver, lung
lungadrenal gland, bone, brain, liver, the other lung
melanomabone, brain, liver, lung, skin, muscle
ovarianliver, lung, peritoneum
pancreaticliver, lung, peritoneum
prostateadrenal gland, bone, liver, lung
rectalliver, lung, peritoneum
stomachliver, lung, peritoneum
thyroidbone, liver, lung
uterinebone, liver, lung, peritoneum, vagina

General symptoms of metastasis

Fatigue and weight loss are among the general symptoms of metastatic cancer. Other symptoms depend on the site of metastasis, such as:

  • Bone: pain, easily fractured bones
  • Brain: headache, dizziness, vision problems, seizures
  • Lung: shortness of breath, cough, chest pain
  • Liver: jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), bloating, abdominal pain

The number and size of tumors can also affect the symptoms.

Diagnosing metastatic cancer may involve imaging tests such as:

A biopsy of a tumor can help identify the type of cancer.

Cancer is harder to treat once it spreads beyond the original site. Because every type of metastatic cancer is different, treatment options vary.

The main treatments are based on the specific type of cancer, which refers to where the cancer started, not where it has spread to. For example, colon cancer that spreads to the liver is treated as colon cancer, not liver cancer.

Other factors that affect treatment options are:

  • site or sites of metastasis
  • previous cancer treatments, if any
  • age and overall health

Treatment may include one or more of the following:

In some cases, the goal of treatment may be to cure the cancer or slow it down. In others, you may want to focus on symptom relief and quality of life. You can always receive palliative care along with other treatments.

Doctors will help determine the best treatment plan based on the specifics of your situation and your preferences.

The outlook depends on many things, including the specific type of cancer. For example, research from 2017 looked at survival after bone metastasis by primary cancer type.

Follow-ups at 1 and 5 years suggest that people with bone metastasis from breast cancer have a better outlook than people with bone metastasis from lung cancer.

Other factors that can influence survival rates are:

  • site or sites of metastasis
  • your body’s response to specific treatments
  • your age and general health

Survival rates vary for different types of cancer. The following are the 5-year relative survival rates for several types of cancer that were metastatic at diagnosis:

Metastatic cancer type5-year relative survival rate
lung and bronchus7.0%

These statistics represent people who received a diagnosis from 2012 to 2018. They don’t include people who received a diagnosis or treatment after 2018 and may not reflect the latest treatments.

Keep in mind that these are general statistics and your doctor will be able to offer a more personal outlook.

Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from its primary site to a distant part of the body. For many types of cancer, “metastatic” refers to stage 4 cancer. Metastatic cancer is often treatable, though it’s challenging.

Most metastatic cancers are not curable, but it’s possible to live for many years with metastatic cancer if the disease is well managed.

Survival rates are general statistics based on people who received a diagnosis at least 5 years ago. Because there are so many variables, your outlook may be quite different. That’s why it’s best to discuss your outlook with your doctor.