What are Metastatic Cancer Symptoms?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2019
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Metastatic cancer occurs when cancers cells from a primary infection attack another organ or system. The condition is often diagnosed through tests, but may result in some noticeable symptoms. Metastatic cancer symptoms will depend on how far the disease has progressed and the location of the secondary cancer infection.

When metastatic cancer symptoms occur, it is because a primary cancer has spread throughout the body. Thus, a person who has ovarian cancer that spreads to the liver will be referred to as having metastatic ovarian cancer, rather than having both ovarian and liver cancer. Whether the cancer is metastatic is determined through the examination of cancerous cells at the secondary site; if they originated in a different organ, it is due to metastatic cancer.

One of the most recognizable metastatic cancer symptoms occurs when cancer has spread to the bones. This can result in intense pain as well as increased susceptibility to breaks and fractures. Symptoms may be localized in one area or felt throughout the skeletal system.

Metastatic cancer systems related to the brain include an increase in headaches and dizziness. People may lose their sense of balance, and may have optical blackouts or brief periods of disorientation. In some cases, memory loss, speech disabilities, and even personality changes can occur.


If a secondary tumor grows in the lungs, the most obvious metastatic cancer symptoms may be respiratory in nature. Shortness of breath is a major sign that a tumor is impeding on lung function. People with a history of lung disease or regular smokers may not necessarily notices these symptoms, or they may attribute them to other causes.

In many cases, people already undergoing treatment for cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiology, may not necessarily notice symptoms. Since many treatment programs for primary cancer are harsh on the body to begin with, the appearance of pain, nausea, or other metastatic cancer symptoms may be indistinguishable from existing reactions to treatment. For those with undiagnosed cancer, symptoms may be brushed off as a simple cold or flu, or general poor health, if any symptoms occur at all.

Throughout the body, any appearance of a lump or hardened section of skin may be cause for concern about metastatic cancer. Patients already diagnosed with a primary disease may undergo periodic scans and checkups to determine if metastasis may be occurring. Since in many cases, no metastatic cancer symptoms occur, these scans may be the only way to get a clear idea of a progressing illness. Scans are usually done through the use of X-ray, computer tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests.


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