Cancer Types | Metastatic Cancer - National Foundation for Cancer Research

Metastatic Cancer

Metastatic Cancer

About Metastatic Cancer

Metastatic cancer (also known as Stage 4 cancer) is not a single type of cancer, but rather a term used to describe any cancer that has spread from the area it started to other areas of the body. Although cancer can spread to any part of the body, the most common sites of metastasis are the bones, liver, and lungs.

Metastatic Cancer Key Facts

  • Metastases can develop when cancer cells from the main tumor break away and enter the body’s fluid systems (bloodstream or lymphatic system) and reach a new site in the body.
  • Metastasis causes more than 90% of cancer-related deaths.
  • Metastatic cancer can occur 5, 10, 15, or more years after a person’s original diagnosis and/or after successful treatment checkups and annual screenings.
  • When cancer spreads to a new area, it is named after the part of the body where it started. As an example, breast cancer that has spread to the lungs is called “metastatic breast cancer to the lungs” – (not lung cancer.) The treatment used is for breast cancer.
  • There are 623,405 people living with the most common metastatic cancers
    (metastatic breast, prostate, lung, colorectal, or bladder cancer or metastatic melanoma) in the US.
  • Although some types of metastatic cancer may be cured with treatment, most cannot right now.
Metastatic Cancer
% metastasis caused cancer-related deaths
of cancer research funds

To reduce the risk of metastatic cancer, adopting a healthy lifestyle and taking preventative measures against known cancer risk factors is vital. Here are some practical tips recommended:

  • A healthy diet
  • Stay active and maintain a healthy weight
  • Get vaccinated
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco
  • Regular medical care and testing
  • Avoid radiation
  • Avoid overexposure to UV rays (sunlight)
  • Avoid chemical exposure

Resource: Cancer Prevention Overview – NCI

Patients with metastatic cancer may not experience symptoms. When symptoms do occur, the symptoms and how often the patient has them will depend on the size and location of the metastatic tumors.

Some common signs of metastatic cancer include:

  • Pain and fractures, when cancer has spread to the bone
  • Headache, seizures, or dizziness, when cancer has spread to the brain
  • Shortness of breath, when cancer has spread to the lung
  • Jaundice or swelling in the belly, when cancer has spread to the liver
  • Loss of energy and feeling weak and/or tired
  • Weight loss (without trying)

Source: American Cancer Society 2024; NCI, Division of Cancer Control & Population Sciences, Office of Cancer Survivorship, 2024.

The risk factors of metastatic cancer essentially overlap with those of primary cancer, as metastasis is a progression of an existing cancer. See this consolidated list of risk factors that could contribute to the development and spread (metastasis) of cancer:

  • Age
  • Alcohol use
  • Tobacco/Smoking
  • Cancer-causing substances
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Diet
  • Genetics
  • Hormones
  • Infectious agents, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and H. pylori
  • Immunosuppression
  • Obesity
  • Radiation
  • UV Exposure
Resource: Risk Factors: Immunosuppression – NCI (

NFCR-Supported Researchers Working on Metastasis Cancer

Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.
University of Kansas Cancer Center

Daniel A. Haber, M.D., Ph.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center

Ronald A. DePinho, M.D.

Ronald A. DePinho, M.D.
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Metastatic Cancer Awareness Day is recognized in October 13.