What is metastatic cancer?

Everyone’s journey with cancer is different. Cancer can have different effects on each person’s body. Some people might hear from their doctor that cancer has spread from where it started to another part of their body. This is called metastatic cancer. Cancer can spread when a bit of it breaks away, moves to another part of the body and grows there It can spread to other parts by getting into the blood or the lymphatic system or by growing into nearby organs.

Metastatic cancer is sometimes known as secondary or advanced cancer.

When cancer spreads to a new area, it is still named after the part of the body where it started. If you have lung cancer and it spreads to a bone in your body, it is called metastatic lung cancer, not bone cancer. The cancer in your lung is called a primary cancer and the cancer in your bone is called a secondary cancer or bone metastasis.

Some people do get told that cancer has already spread, when they are first told they have cancer. The cancer might be found in the bone first, but tests show it was from the lung. This will be called lung cancer that has spread or ‘metastasised’ to the bone.

How it affects you

Symptoms and signs of metastatic cancer depend on where the cancer is. Some people say they didn’t  know they had cancer until after the tests showed that the cancer had already spread. 

Other people can get general symptoms of metastatic cancer. These can include feeling tired or sick, trouble sleeping, losing weight, general aches and pain, night sweats and fevers. Depending on where the cancer is, they may develop pain in that area or may have a new swelling or lump. They might also have symptoms relating to the organ that is affected. For example, they may have trouble with their eyes if the cancer has spread to their brain or trouble breathing if the cancer has spread to their lungs.

There might also be sore areas, weakened bones or problems with how the body makes blood.

There are also side effects from cancer treatment, and problems that could be from other illnesses.

People may feel worried that the cancer has spread, and they don’t know what is going to happen.

Speaking up straight away

It is important to tell your doctor or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Health Worker if you have any feelings or problems with your body that are new, or that you are worried about.

If you talk about symptoms, your health professionals might find ways to you help feel better.

Things that help

If you have a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, you will be closely looked after by a team of healthcare workers. The doctors will arrange follow-up visits and appointments with other healthcare professionals. This might mean talking, doing blood tests and doing tests on parts of your body.

There might be ways to help with symptoms, to treat the cancer and look after your mind and spirit.

The symptoms and side effects depend on the type and location of cancer. You might get tablets or medicine to help with pain and other symptoms. You may also need help from another health worker or doctor. For example, some people may need radiotherapy to help with pain.

You may also see other healthcare workers to help with your nutrition, exercise, mental health and support. 

Talk to people you trust about how you feel. You could talk to family and friends, your doctor, your nurse and your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health worker. Yarn through the treatment options to help you decide what is best for you.

Having a healthy lifestyle is another thing that helps – do things that make you feel good, help heal, reduce fear and stress, and have a strong spirit


Metastatic cancer is usually not curable, which means that it cannot be removed from your body.  However, many people will still have treatment, which can help them live longer and better.

Get all the information you can so you can decide what is best for you.

People say if they have had cancer that has spread or come back, this time around they know more about what might happen. They know more about what questions to ask, how they might feel and what could help best. Some people find it’s better with help from others.

Because you are the one having the treatment, it is important you understand what it is for. Getting as much information as you can from your health professionals and other people who have been through cancer treatment can help you decide what is best for you.

You can ask questions of your doctor, your nurse and your Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Health Worker.