What is advanced cancer?

Cancer is a disease of the cells, which are the body’s basic building blocks. It occurs when abnormal cells divide and multiply in an uncontrolled way.

There are many types of cancer and each type develops differently. Some grow slowly, some advance rapidly, and others behave unpredictably. Some types of cancer respond well to treatment, while other types are more difficult to treat.

Advanced cancer is a term used to describe cancer that is unlikely to be cured. It may be primary or secondary cancer.

Primary cancer refers to the first mass of cancer cells (tumour) in an organ or tissue. The tumour is confined to its original site, such as the bowel. This is called cancer in situ, carcinoma in situ or localised cancer.

The beginnings of cancer

If cancer cells from the primary site move through the body’s bloodstream or lymph vessels to a new site, they can multiply and form other malignant tumours (metastases). This is known as secondary or metastatic cancer. Secondary cancer keeps the name of the original, primary cancer. For example, bowel cancer that has spread to the liver is still called metastatic bowel cancer, even when the person has symptoms caused by cancer in the liver.

Although medical treatments may not be able to cure advanced cancer, some treatments may still be able to slow its growth or spread, sometimes for months or even years. Palliative care can also help manage cancer symptoms, which may include pain, and can reduce side effects from cancer treatments. At any stage of advanced cancer, a range of other palliative care services can enhance quality of life.

How cancer spreads

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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