Coping with Metastatic Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2019

Metastasis occurs when cancer spreads to a different part of the body from where it started. Metastasis should not be confused with “locally advanced cancer.” That is cancer that has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes. But it has not spread throughout the body.

Learn more about the basics of metastasis.

Naming metastatic cancer

You may find the naming of metastatic cancer confusing. Doctors name a metastasis for the original cancer. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the bone is not bone cancer. It is called metastatic breast cancer.

What does it mean to have metastatic cancer?

In the past, many people did not live long with metastatic cancer. Even with today’s better treatments, recovery is not always possible. But doctors can often treat cancer even if they cannot cure it. A good quality of life is possible for months or even years.

How is metastatic cancer treated?

Treatment depends on the type of cancer, the available treatment options, and your wishes. It also depends on your age, general health, treatment you had before, and other factors. Treatments for metastatic cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy.

Goals of treatment

For many people with cancer, the goal of treatment is to try to cure the cancer. This means getting rid of the cancer and never having it come back. With metastatic cancer, curing the cancer may not be a realistic goal. However, it might still be a hope or dream. It is reasonable to ask your doctor if curing the cancer is the goal.

If curing the cancer is not the goal of treatment, the goal is to help a person live as well as possible for as long as possible. Getting more specific, this goal can be broken into 4 parts:

  • To have the fewest possible side effects from the cancer

  • To have the fewest possible side effects from the cancer treatment

  • For the person with cancer to have the best quality of life

  • For the person with cancer to live as long as possible with the cancer

Each person values these items differently. It is important to tell your health care team what is important to you.

Getting treatment for metastatic cancer can help you live longer and feel better. But getting treatment is always your decision.

Learn more about making decisions about cancer treatment. These recommendations include information on treating many types of metastatic cancer.

Living with long-term cancer

When doctors can treat metastatic cancer, your situation may be like someone with a chronic, or long-term, disease. Examples of chronic diseases are type 1 diabetes, congestive heart failure, and multiple sclerosis. Doctors can treat these conditions, but not cure them.

The challenges of living with cancer

Living with metastatic cancer is challenging. The challenges are different for everyone, but they can include:

  • Feeling upset that the cancer came back. You might feel hopeless, angry, sad, or like no one understands what you are going through, even family.

  • Worrying that treatment will not help and the cancer will get worse.

  • Dealing with tests, doctor’s appointments, and decisions.

  • Talking with family and friends about the cancer.

  • Needing help with daily activities if you feel exhausted or have side effects from treatment.

  • Finding emotional and spiritual support.

  • Coping with the cost of more treatment. Even if you have insurance, it might not cover everything.

Meeting the challenges of metastatic cancer

To understand your situation, you may want to get a second opinion. Many people find that it helps to get an opinion from another oncologist, and many doctors encourage it.

Your doctor can help you cope with cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. For example, if you have pain, your treatment might include surgery to remove a tumor in a painful area. Your doctor might also prescribe pain medication or anti-nausea medication.

Dealing with emotions and lifestyle changes

Coping with emotions and lifestyle challenges is an important part of living with metastatic cancer. Ways of coping include:

  • Learning about the metastasis. You might want to know everything possible, or just basic information.

  • Talking with another health care professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or oncology social worker about your situation.

  • Managing stress. From planning ahead to trying meditation and yoga, there are many options to help lower your stress level.

  • Finding meaning. Talking with a hospital chaplain, a counselor, or your religious leader can help.

Recognize your feelings and concerns

Talking about fears and concerns is important, even when treatment is working well. Tell your health care team about emotional symptoms. People may live for years with metastatic cancer. Your doctor can help you have the best quality of life possible during this time. Hospitals and medical centers have many resources for you and your family.

Support for your caregivers

Your loved ones might also need help coping. Having a family member or friend with metastatic cancer is challenging, especially for people who help care for you. They can try the ways of coping above. Or your health care team can suggest other tips. For example, there are in-person and online support groups for family members of people with cancer.

Related Resources

Coping with Uncertainty

Dealing With Cancer Recurrence

Finding a Support Buddy

More Information

American Cancer Society: Understanding Recurrence

American Cancer Society: Managing Cancer as a Chronic Illness

Lehigh Valley Health Network: Living With Cancer as a Chronic Illness