Palliative Care for a Cancer of Unknown Primary

Some cancers of unknown primary can be treated effectively or even cured, but most are advanced cancers for which treatments are unlikely to provide long-term benefits. It’s very important that people with advanced cancer of unknown primary (CUP) are aware that even if the cancer can’t be cured, there are treatments available to help prevent or relieve pain and other symptoms. Many patients with CUP may benefit from palliative care as part of their treatment plan. Palliative care includes supportive care managed by your care team, such as relief from symptoms, pain, and stress. It’s meant to improve quality of life for patients and their families. Treatment to control the cancer may also be included in a supportive care plan. More information can be found in Advanced Cancer and Palliative or Supportive Care.

Pain is a significant concern for patients with cancer of unknown primary. There are proven ways to relieve pain due to cancer of unknown primary using a combination of medicines and, in some cases, surgical procedures. Patients should not hesitate to take advantage of these treatments, which means they must tell their doctors if they have pain. Otherwise the doctor can’t help. For most patients, treatment with morphine or drugs related to it (called opioids because they are related to opium) can reduce pain considerably while still allowing them to function well. For the treatment to be effective, the pain medicines must be given regularly on a schedule, not just when the pain becomes severe. Several long-acting forms of morphine and other long-acting opioid drugs have been developed that need only to be given once or twice a day.

For more information on pain, what can be done about it, and how to keep track of it, see the Cancer-related Pain section of our website.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Greco FA, Hainsworth JD. Carcinoma of Unknown Primary In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2015: 1719-1736.

National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Cancer of Unknown Primary Treatment. 07/25/2015. Accessed at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/unknown-primary/hp/unknown-primary-treatment-pdq on February 9, 2018.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Occult Primary. v.1.2018. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/occult.pdf on February 9, 2018.

Varadhachary GR, Lenzi R, Raber MN, Abbruzzese JL. Carcinoma of Unknown Primary In: Neiderhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA. Elsevier: 2014:1792-1803.

Last Medical Review: March 9, 2018 Last Revised: March 9, 2018

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