What is Metastatic Cancer?
Metastatic cancer is a cancer that has spread from the part of the body where it started to other parts of the body. When this happens, physicians say the cancer has metastasized. Your physician may also call it recurrent cancer, advanced cancer, or stage IV (4) cancer. Metastatic cancer has the same name and the same type of cancer cells as the original, or primary, cancer. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the lung and forms a metastatic tumor is metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer.
How Does Cancer Spread?
According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer cells spread through the body in a series of steps. These steps include:
- Growing into, or invading, nearby normal tissue
- Moving through the walls of nearby lymph nodes or blood vessels
- Traveling through the lymphatic system and bloodstream to other parts of the body
- Stopping in small blood vessels at a distant location, invading the blood vessel walls, and moving into the surrounding tissue
- Growing in this tissue until a tiny tumor forms
- Causing new blood vessels to grow, which creates a blood supply that allows the metastatic tumor to continue growing
Most of the time, spreading cancer cells die at some point in this process. However, as long as conditions are favorable for the cancer cells at every step, some of them can form new tumors in other parts of the body. Metastatic cancer cells can also remain inactive at a distant site for many years before they begin to grow again, if at all.
Where Does Cancer Spread?
The type of cancer and where the cancer starts is linked to how likely and where it will spread. Because of how the body’s bloodstream and lymph systems work, some of the most common sites where cancer can spread include the lungs, liver, bone, and brain.
However, cancer can spread to almost every part of the body, though some types of cancer tend to spread to certain parts of the body. For example:
- Breast cancer tends to spread to the bones, liver, lungs, chest wall, and brain
- Lung cancer tends to spread to the brain, bones, liver, and adrenal glands
- Prostate cancer tends to spread to the bones
- Colon and rectal cancers tend to spread to the liver and lungs
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