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What is secondary cancer?

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.

The cancer cells may settle in that part of the body and form a new tumour. If this happens, the new tumour is called a secondary cancer or a metastasis.

Cancer cells in the bloodstream

Although the new tumour is growing in a different area of the body, it is the same type of cancer as the primary tumour. So for example, breast cancer cells that spread to the liver grow and behave like breast cancer cells. And they may be treated with the same drugs as breast cancer. They are not treated the same way as cancer cells that started in the liver (primary liver cancer).

Secondary cancer is one way of describing cancer that has spread. But there are other words that your doctor or nurse may use. You may find the following explanations helpful.

  • Secondary cancer

    This means cancer that has spread to a different area of the body. 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

    When we say advanced cancer, we usually mean cancer that cannot be cured. This might be because the cancer has spread to another part of the body (secondary cancer). But it may also be because treatment is not possible. For example, if a locally advanced cancer is very close to an important organ it may not be possible to remove it safely. We have more information about coping with advanced cancer.

Symptoms of secondary cancer

The symptoms caused by secondary tumours depend on the area of the body affected. We have general information about possible signs and symptoms of cancer. We also have more information about the most common types of secondary cancer below. Always see your doctor if you have symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you.

Is secondary cancer curable?

In a small number of situations, treatment can cure secondary cancer. However, usually secondary cancers are not curable and the aim of treatment is to control the cancer or manage any symptoms. Depending on the type of cancer, some people will have treatments that control the cancer for several years.

The treatment you have may depend on the type of cancer and what treatment you had before. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can tell you more. We have information about treating different types of secondary cancer below. We also have more about treatments in our information about different primary cancers.

Secondary liver cancer

Secondary liver cancer happens when cancer cells spread to the liver from a primary cancer somewhere else in the body. This is also called liver metastases.

Any cancer can spread to the liver but it is more likely with:

Secondary bone cancer

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 it is more likely with:

Secondary lung cancer

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:

Secondary brain cancer

Cancer that starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the brain is called secondary brain cancer or brain metastases.

Some types of primary cancer are more likely to spread to the brain. These include:

Secondary lymph node cancer

Secondary cancer in the lymph nodes is when cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes from a cancer that started somewhere else in the body.

Sometimes cancer is found in lymph nodes near to where the cancer started. For example, breast cancer cells may travel to lymph nodes in the armpit (axilla) or above the collar bone (clavicle).

Cancer in lymph nodes that are further away from the primary cancer is called secondary cancer. Cancer found in nearby lymph nodes is usually treated differently to cancer in lymph nodes that are further away.

Secondary breast cancer

Sometimes breast cancer that has spread to other areas of the body is called secondary breast cancer. We have more information about secondary breast cancer.