Advanced cancer

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What is advanced cancer?

What does advanced cancer mean?

Advanced cancer usually means cancer that it is not possible to cure. For example, this may be because the cancer has spread to another part of the body.

Doctors sometimes call this metastatic or secondary cancer. Depending on the cancer type, it may also be called stage 4 cancer.

Some people may have a cancer that is advanced when they are first diagnosed. For others, the cancer may spread or come back after treatment.

You may be able to have treatment to control the cancer. During this time, many people can continue with their day-to-day lives. They can still do the things that are important to them. Some people may live with advanced cancer for a long time – sometimes for years.

Sometimes treatment may not be able to control the spread of the cancer. Or you may not be well enough to have treatment. You will still have treatment to manage any symptoms. This is called supportive or palliative care.

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Signs and symptoms of advanced cancer

Many people worry that a cancer will come back after treatment. Even when your doctor reassures you, it is still normal to worry. The possible signs of advanced cancer can depend on the type of cancer. Your cancer doctor or specialist can explain what to look out for.

We have general information on signs and symptoms to be aware of. Always check any new symptoms with your GP, cancer doctor or specialist nurse. This can help with feelings of worry and uncertainty.

Advanced cancer treatment

Treatment for advanced cancer usually aims to control the cancer and help you live longer. It may also aim to help improve your symptoms and quality of life. Treatment can shrink the size of the tumour or stop it from growing for a while.

Treatment for advanced cancer may include one or more of the following:

You may have some treatments as part of clinical trials.

Your treatment will depend on the type of cancer you have and where it is in your body.

We have more information about:

Managing advanced cancer symptoms and side effects of treatment

If you have symptoms caused by the cancer or side effects of treatment, tell your doctor or nurse. It is important to tell them so they can help.

There may be times when you need care and support from your healthcare team.

Your GP or cancer specialist may refer you to a palliative care team. This is an expert team that helps manage symptoms, such as pain or nausea. There are palliative care teams based in hospitals, hospices or in the community.

We also have information about coping with different symptoms and side effects.

Making decisions about treatment

You may want to find out as much as possible about your treatment options before making any decisions. Your doctors and nurses will talk to you about what treatments may be suitable for you. These will depend on the type of cancer you have and where it is in your body.

Your doctors will consider what is important to you and how treatment may affect you. This will help you both decide on the best course of treatment.

You may need to have a few treatments before you and your doctor can decide whether to continue with a full course of treatment.

For example, if you are having chemotherapy to control or shrink the cancer, you may have a scan after several weeks. This is to assess the effect the treatment is having. If the scan results show that the treatment is working, you are likely to benefit from continuing with the treatment.

However, the treatment may no longer have an effect on the cancer after some time. You may start getting the side effects of the treatment without any of the benefits. In this case, you may want to think about whether to continue with treatment.

Making treatment decisions in these circumstances is always difficult. It may help to talk with your cancer doctor, specialist nurse, family and friends before deciding what to do.

Asking about how long you might live

For some people, it is important to have an idea of how long they might live (prognosis). Others prefer to focus on their quality of life and choose to never ask this question.

If you want to talk about this, your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can help. We have information about asking your healthcare team about prognosis that may be helpful.

Coping with advanced cancer

Coping with how you feel

It is common to have many different reactions and feelings about having advanced cancer. You may feel shocked and find it hard to understand. You may feel frightened about the future, or you may feel angry.

These feelings usually become easier to manage with time, and as you start making decisions and plans.

Partners, family and friends can be an important source of support when you are coping with advanced cancer. But it can be very upsetting or painful to talk about your illness with people you are close to.

Your family and friends may not be sure how much you want to talk about your illness and treatment. They may be waiting for you to talk about it.

If you find talking about your situation difficult, we have information which you may find helpful.

Macmillan is also here to support you, and your family and friends. If you would like to talk, you can do the following: 

Coping day to day

Being diagnosed with advanced cancer can mean living with doubt and uncertainty. You may find you feel more in control by:

  • understanding what is happening to you
  • making decisions about things you can do something about.

Depending on your symptoms or the side effects of treatment, you may find it harder to cope at home. You may feel very tired or have problems with mobility, which can make practical tasks such as shopping and housework more difficult.

We have information and tips for managing practical tasks to help you cope.

You may find it hard to ask people for help. But you will probably find people are happy to have specific things they can do for you. Accepting any offers of help can help to reduce stress and help you feel more in control.

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Finance, work and benefits

Advanced cancer can affect your finances. We have information to help you plan your finances. Financial planning could include writing a will and deciding what will happen to your possessions.

If you are employed, it is important to talk to your employer. Some people continue to work. Others may need more rest or feel too unwell to work. We have more information about work and cancer.

You may be entitled to benefits or other financial support. Depending on your situation, you may be able to claim certain benefits under special rules. This means your claim will be dealt with quickly and you will receive the benefit at the highest rate.

Advance care planning

Some people may want to think about what they might want to happen if they become less well. For example, they may want to record their wishes about how and where they would want to be cared for. This is called advance care planning.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and advanced cancer

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a way to try to restart the heart and breathing if they suddenly stop. Whether CPR works can depend on:

  • the age and general health of the person
  • any other health problems
  • the reason the heart and breathing stopped
  • how quickly the heart and breathing can be restarted.

We have more information about CPR. It explains what CPR involves, and decisions you and your healthcare team may need to make about CPR.

Finding out about end of life

When someone finds out their cancer may not be cured, they may have questions about what will happen at the end of life. They may want to understand what to expect or want to know how to prepare.

We have more information about practical and emotional support at the end of life.

Reviewed: 31 January 2019
Reviewed: 31/01/2019
Next review: 31 July 2021
Next review: 31/07/2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.