What is Metastatic Cancer?

What is Metastatic Cancer?

Metastatic cancer is a cancer that has spread from the original (primary) site to other parts of the body. Many metastatic cancers cannot be cured completely. But ongoing treatments can slow the growth, shrink tumors, alleviate symptoms, and extend one’s life. In these cases, metastatic cancer can be viewed as a chronic illness.

How Does Cancer Metastasize?

How Does Cancer Metastasize?

Cancer metastasizes when cells from the original tumor break apart and spread to other body parts. Causes of metastasis can be linked to an attack on cancer by the immune system or conditions where cancer struggles to survive—from a lack of oxygen or essential nutrients.

Metastases (metastatic tumors) can develop when:

  • Cancer cells spread directly to nearby tissue
  • Cancer cells travel through the lymphatic system to the lymph nodes
  • Cancer cells spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body

To survive, cancerous cells that have broken off from the primary tumor must:

  • Attach to the wall of a lymph or blood vessel to travel to a new part of the body
  • Develop ways to grow and thrive in their new environment
  • Ward off attacks from a body’s immune system

Types of Cancer That Commonly Metastasize


Almost every type of cancer has the potential to metastasize. Metastatic cancer that has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes is Stage III, while Stage IV has spread to distant organs.

The most common types of metastatic cancers are the following, but other cancers also can spread:

Where Does Cancer Metastasize?

Common Areas of Metastasis

Cancer can metastasize to any part of the body, but there are specific areas where this more commonly happens, including the brain, lungs, liver, and bones. Other places include the lymph nodes, skin, adrenal glands, and other organs.

If cancer spreads to a nearby organ or body part, it is labeled a “regional metastasis.” A “distant metastasis” is when cancer spreads far from its origin.

Many common types of cancer can metastasize to specific regions of the body, including:

  • Breast cancer can spread to the bone, brain, liver, and lung
  • Bladder cancer can spread to the bone, liver, and lung
  • Lung cancer can spread to the adrenal glands, bone, brain, liver, and other parts of the lung
  • Colorectal cancer can spread to the liver, lung, and peritoneal cavity
  • Melanoma can spread to the bone, brain, liver, lungs, and skin
  • Thyroid cancer can spread to the bone, liver, and lung

Signs & Symptoms of Metastatic Cancer

Signs & Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of metastatic cancer can vary and depend on the type of cancer and the location of the spread. Some patients may exhibit no symptoms at all.

Here are some common symptoms of specific metastatic cancers:

  • Metastatic brain cancer - Brain metastasis symptoms can include nausea, headaches, speech problems, vision issues, dizziness, confusion, or difficulty walking
  • Metastatic bone cancer - A fractured bone from a minor injury (or no injury) can be the first sign. Also bone pain, urinary incontinence, severe back pain, and weakness in the arms or legs.
  • Metastatic lung cancer - Signs of lung metastasis can be coughing, chest pain, coughing up blood, or shortness of breath
  • General symptoms of other advanced cancers, such as metastatic breast cancer, can include headaches, pain, unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath, and extreme fatigue
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Metastatic Cancer Care

NewYork Presbyterian is home to some of the nation’s top cancer specialists. Our compassionate doctors and oncologists are experts in identifying the symptoms and providing treatment for all types of cancer.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of metastatic cancer, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We are here to help.