What is advanced cancer?

Different health professionals may not mean the exact same thing when they use the term advanced cancer. In this document, when we refer to advanced cancer, we are talking about cancers that cannot be cured. That means that these cancers will not go away and stay away completely with treatment. If a cancer can’t be cured, it will grow and spread and, over time, will likely end your life.

Advanced cancers have usually spread from where they started to other parts of the body. This is known as metastatic cancer. But not all advanced cancers are metastatic. For example, some cancers that start in the brain may be considered advanced because they cannot be cured and are life-threatening even though they have not spread to other parts of the body.

In the same way, not all metastatic cancers are advanced cancers. Some cancers, such as testicular cancer, can spread to other parts of the body and still be very curable. For more on metastatic cancer, see What is metastatic cancer?

Another term you may hear is locally advanced cancer. This is used to describe cancer that has grown outside the organ it started in but has not yet spread to distant parts of the body. Some of these cancers may be “advanced” as we are using the term here. For example, locally advanced pancreatic cancer is often not curable. But other locally advanced cancers, such as some prostate cancers, may be cured.

    If you or a loved one is told that you have advanced cancer, it’s very important to find out exactly what the doctor means. Some may use the term to describe metastatic cancer, while others might use it in other situations. Be sure you understand what the doctor is talking about and what it means for you.

Advanced cancer can often be treated. Even if the cancer cannot be cured, treatment can sometimes shrink the cancer or slow its growth, help relieve symptoms, and help you live longer. Some people can live for many years with advanced cancer.

Every person’s cancer is unique. Your cancer may respond differently to treatments and grow at a rate different from the same type of cancer in someone else. For some people, the cancer may already be advanced when they first learn they have the disease. For others, the cancer may not become advanced until years after it was first diagnosed.

As advanced cancer grows, it can cause symptoms that may need to be treated to help control them. These symptoms can almost always be treated, even when the cancer itself is no longer responding to treatment.

What is recurrent cancer?

Recurrence means that the cancer has come back in a patient who was thought to be cancer-free (in remission) after treatment. Cancer can come back:

  • In or near the same place it started – this is called local recurrence.
  • In lymph nodes near the original site of the cancer – this is called regional recurrence.
  • In distant parts of the body – this is called distant or metastatic recurrence.

Recurrent cancer is often harder to treat than the original cancer, but it’s not always advanced cancer. For example, a small cancer that had been treated with surgery but then recurs locally (comes back in the same area) can sometimes be treated or even cured with more surgery. Cancers that recur farther away from the original cancer site are more likely to be advanced cancers.

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.

Last Medical Review: February 7, 2014 Last Revised: March 6, 2014

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