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Cancer starts in our cells. Cells are tiny building blocks that make up the body’s organs and tissues. Cancer develops when a cell becomes abnormal. It keeps dividing to make more abnormal cells. These can form a lump, called a tumour.
A tumour that is cancer is called a malignant tumour. It can grow into nearby tissue and may spread to other parts of the body.
The place where a cancer starts in the body is called the primary cancer. Sometimes cells break away from the primary cancer and are carried in the bloodstream or through the lymphatic system to another part of the body. When these cancer cells reach another part of the body, they may grow and form another tumour. This is called a secondary cancer or a metastasis.
A secondary cancer is the same type of cancer as the primary tumour. For example, breast cancer cells that spread to the liver are still breast cancer cells. They will be treated with drugs used to treat breast cancer.
Your doctor may use different terms when describing cancer that has spread.
Secondary cancer or metastatic cancer
This means cancer that has spread to a different area of the body. Your doctors might use the medical term metastatic cancer. Sometimes it may be possible to cure secondary cancer. Usually, treatment will aim to control the cancer and manage any symptoms.
Locally advanced cancer
This means the primary tumour has started to grow into nearby areas of the body. It has not spread to other parts of the body.
Advanced cancer usually means a cancer that cannot be cured. This might be because the cancer has spread to another part of the body (secondary cancer). But it may be because there is not a treatment that can be used. We have more information about coping with advanced cancer.
The symptoms caused by a secondary cancer depend on where in the body the secondary cancer is. We have general information about possible signs and symptoms of cancer.
We also have more details about the most common types of secondary cancer below. Always contact your doctor if you have symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you.
In a small number of situations, it is possible to cure a secondary cancer. However, secondary cancers are not usually curable, and the aim of treatment is to control the cancer and manage any symptoms. Everyone is different and will respond to treatment in different ways.
The treatment you have will depend on the primary cancer, where it has spread to and what treatment you have had before. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can explain what treatment is likely to be suitable for you.
We have information about treating different types of secondary cancer below. Read more about different treatments for different primary cancers.
Secondary liver cancer is when cancer cells spread to the liver from a primary cancer somewhere else in the body. It is also called liver metastases.
Any cancer can spread to the liver but it is more likely with:
Cancer that has spread to the bone from somewhere else in the body is called secondary bone cancer. Secondary tumours in the bone are sometimes called bone secondaries or bone metastases.
Any cancer can spread to the bone, but secondary bone cancer happens more often with:
Secondary lung cancer is when cancer cells have spread to the lungs from a cancer that started somewhere else in the body. It is also called lung metastases.
Some cancers are more likely to spread to the lungs than others. These include:
When cancer is first diagnosed, cancer cells are sometimes found in lymph nodes near to where the cancer starts. For example, breast cancer cells may be found in lymph nodes in the armpit called the axilla. Or it may be found above the collar bone, called the clavicle. This is not a secondary cancer.
Secondary cancer in the lymph nodes is when cancer cells occur in lymph nodes that are further away from where the cancer started.
Cancer in nearby lymph nodes is usually treated differently to cancer in lymph nodes that are further away.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our secondary cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Christie NHS Foundation Trust. Secondary cancers (metastases). Updated August 2022. Available from: https://www.christie.nhs.uk/patients-and-visitors/your-treatment-and-care/types-of-cancer/secondary-cancers-metastases (accessed August 2022).
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Brain tumours (primary) and brain metastases in over 16s. Updated 29 January 2021. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng99 (accessed May 2022)
J Martin, A Petrillo, EC Smyth, et al. Colorectal liver metastases: Current management and future perspectives. 2020. World Journal of Clinical Oncology. Oct 24, Volume 11, Issue 10, pp:761-808. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33200074/ (accessed June 2022).
Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. Lung cancer and bone metastases. Available from: https://roycastle.org/about-lung-cancer/advanced-lung-cancer/lung-cancer-and-bone-metastases/ (accessed June 2022).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
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