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Definition

Metastasis is the movement or spreading of cancer cells from one organ or tissue to another. Cancer cells usually spread through the blood or the lymph system.

If a cancer spreads, it is said to have "metastasized."

Alternative Names

Metastatic cancer; Cancer metastases

Information

Whether or not cancer cells spread to other parts of the body depends on many things, including:

  • The type of cancer
  • The stage of the cancer
  • Original location of the cancer
  • Your body's natural defenses, such as the immune system

Treatment depends on the type of cancer and where it has spread.

Gallery

Kidney metastases - CT scan
A CT scan of the middle abdomen showing metastasis (cancer that has spread) in the left kidney in a patient with carcinoma of the lung. Note the large dark circular tumor in the kidney on the right side of the picture.
CT scan
CT stands for computerized tomography. In this procedure, a thin X-ray beam is rotated around the area of the body to be visualized. Using very complicated mathematical processes called algorithms, the computer is able to generate a 3-D image of a section through the body. CT scans are very detailed and provide excellent information for the physician.
Lymphatic system
The lymphatic system filters fluid from around cells. It is an important part of the immune system. When people refer to swollen glands in the neck, they are usually referring to swollen lymph nodes. Common areas where lymph nodes can be easily felt, especially if they are enlarged, are the groin, armpits (axilla), above the clavicle (supraclavicular), in the neck (cervical), and the back of the head just above hairline (occipital).
CT scan
CT stands for computerized tomography. In this procedure, a thin X-ray beam is rotated around the area of the body to be visualized. Using very complicated mathematical processes called algorithms, the computer is able to generate a 3-D image of a section through the body. CT scans are very detailed and provide excellent information for the physician.

References

Doroshow JH. Approach to the patient with cancer. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 169.

Krasnick BA, Goedegebuure SP, Fields R. Tumor biology and tumor markers. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 21st ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier; 2022:chap 28.

Rankin EB, Giaccia AJ. Cellular microenvironment and metastases. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 3.

Last reviewed October 25, 2022 by Frank D. Brodkey, MD, FCCM, Associate Professor, Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, WI. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team..

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