Metastatic cancer is a cancer that has spread from its original site to other parts of the body. It happens when cancer cells break away from a primary tumor and travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. It can also occur when a cancer tumor spreads beyond its initial site by growing directly into adjacent body tissues.
When cancer spreads to the brain or spine, the resulting metastatic tumor may require surgical removal in addition to continued oncological treatment for the originating tumor.
Here, fellowship-trained neurosurgical oncologist Jose Valerio, MD, explains how metastasis occurs, explores common signs and symptoms of metastatic cancer, and discusses treatment options for secondary tumors that take root in the brain or spine.
Metastasis is the term used to describe the spread of cancer cells. Unlike normal body cells, cancer cells can grow outside of the place where they originated. Nearly every type of cancer has the potential to spread beyond its point of origin (metastasize).
The process of cancer spreading begins when cancer cells break away from the original tumor. Now mobile, they can enter the bloodstream or lymph system or invade and grow into nearby healthy tissues.
Traveling cancer cells may attach to the wall of a blood or lymph vessel or travel through blood or lymph vessels to a distant body part. All breakaway cancer cells must avoid attacks from the immune system and must move into new host tissue and form blood vessels to continue growing.
Also known as advanced cancer or stage IV cancer, metastatic cancer has the same name as its primary cancer. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the brain is called metastatic breast cancer, not brain cancer.
Doctors can tell a tumor is metastatic because its cells have features that correspond to the primary cancer location, and because the tumor lacks features that would indicate it formed in its current location.
Signs of metastatic cancer
While virtually all types of cancer can spread beyond their point of origin, certain primary cancers — including breast, prostate, lung, kidney, thyroid, colon, and pancreatic cancers — have a greater propensity for becoming metastatic.
The most common sites for cancer to metastasize to include the brain, spine, bones, lungs, and liver. Metastatic cancer tumors don’t always cause noticeable symptoms, but when symptoms do occur, their nature and severity depend on the tumor location and size.
The brain is a common metastatic site for breast, kidney, lung, and melanoma (skin) cancers. Symptoms of brain metastasis may include headaches, dizziness, vision or speech problems, confusion, personality changes, and seizures.
The spine is a common metastatic site for breast, prostate, lung, lymphoma (lymph node), and leukemia (blood cell) cancers. Symptoms of secondary spine tumors may include chronic back pain, muscle weakness or loss of sensation in the extremities, difficulty walking, and a loss of bladder and/or bowel function.
Bone tissue is a common secondary site for spreading bladder, breast, kidney, lung, thyroid, uterine, and skin cancer tumors. The first sign that cancer has spread to the bone is usually a bone fracture after a minor injury or no injury. You may also experience unexplained pain at the site, such as neck, back, hip, leg, shoulder, or arm pain.
The lungs are a common site of metastatic cancer spread in general. Most types of cancer can readily spread to the lungs. Unfortunately, lung metastasis symptoms — such as a persistent cough, coughing up blood, chest pain, and shortness of breath — are often mistaken for other health conditions first.
The liver is another common site for metastatic tumors of all types. With liver metastasis, you might experience generalized pain, abdominal fluid retention (ascites), nausea and loss of appetite, weight loss, or yellowing of the skin and the white of the eyes (jaundice).
Metastatic cancer treatment
Metastatic cancer treatment is based on where the cancer started, rather than where it has spread to. For example, metastatic breast cancer that has spread to the brain is treated as stage IV breast cancer, not as brain cancer. This is because the cancer cells aren’t different, they’re just living in a different place.
A few types of metastasized cancers are potentially curable, but most are only manageable. This means most people with metastatic cancer live with the disease, sometimes for many years, using treatment to control (stop or slow) cancer growth and ease symptoms.
Living with cancer that has metastasized to the brain or spine may involve tumor removal surgery to relieve problematic symptoms. When treating a metastatic central nervous system tumor, Dr. Valerio’s main objective is to alleviate pain, preserve or improve function, and add to the quality and length of your life.
To remove a metastatic brain or spine tumor, Dr. Valerio uses advanced, minimally invasive tools and techniques for the best possible outcome. Treatment may involve chemotherapy or radiation therapy as well, depending on the case.
From metastatic cancer diagnosis and treatment planning to surgical removal and long-term follow-up care, you’re in good hands with Dr. Valerio. To learn more, schedule an appointment over the phone with the practice of Jose Valerio, MD, today. We have offices in South Miami, Hialeah, or Weston, Florida.