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.


How cancer starts


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


Some people’s cancer may be advanced when they are first diagnosed. For others, the cancer may spread or come back (recur) after initial treatment.

Advanced cancer usually can’t be cured, but it can often be controlled. For some people, improved treatments can help manage the cancer and relieve side effects, allowing people to live for a long time – sometimes for years – with a good quality of life. In this case, the cancer may be considered a chronic (long-lasting) disease.


Treatment options

The treatment options available will depend on the aim of treatment – whether it’s to try to cure the cancer, keep the cancer from spreading, or to control symptoms. Treatment will depend on where the cancer started, how far it has spread, your general health and preferences. The most common treatments include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these. Sometimes, treatment is available through clinical trials.

Treatments can be used for different reasons, so talk to your doctor about the aim of each treatment. As the cancer progresses, the aim may change from trying to cure the cancer, to controlling the cancer, to relieving symptoms and improving quality of life. For further details, see treatment for advanced cancer.


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