What is Metastasis and Metastatic Cancer?

Samantha Savage Grace, Artem Cheprasov
  • Author
    Samantha Savage Grace

    Samantha has taught science, mathematics, and engineering for over 5 years. They have a Master's in the Art of Teaching with a focus in inclusive and equitable STEM education from Goucher College and a Bachelor's in Biology from University of Maryland Baltimore County with minors in Psychology and Emergency Health Services. In addition to teaching licenses in multiple disciplines they also hold certifications through Project Lead the Way for engineering and are AVID certified.

  • Instructor
    Artem Cheprasov

    Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Understand metastasis cancer, and learn how cancer spreads. Discover the symptoms of metastasis cancer, and treatment options. Updated: 12/29/2021

Table of Contents


What is Metastasis?

The literal definition of metastasis is to move from one part of the body to another. However, this term is most commonly used to refer to the process by which a secondary cancer grows in a different location from the primary location of the cancer. This may mean that the primary cancer was found in the lungs, however later in its course, tumors can also be found in the liver or bone. Those secondary tumors would be considered metastatic.

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  • 0:06 Spread around the Body
  • 0:38 Metastasis
  • 1:44 Angiogenesis
  • 3:48 Where Cancer Cells Spread
  • 6:41 Lesson Summary
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Metastatic Cancer Definition

Metastatic cancer is cancer that is found in a different location from the original tumor site. The original tumor site is referred to as the primary cancer. When medical technicians study these metastatic cancer cells under the microscope, they still retain properties similar to those from the primary cancer. These similarities demonstrate that these secondary tumors, or metastatic tumors, are derived from the primary cancer and did not grow spontaneously. To metastasize, cells from the primary cancer must break away from the tumor, and then travel through either the lymphatic system or vascular system. These metastatic tumors can form in numerous places, but the most common are the bone, liver, and lungs. Once found, they are named not for their current location, but by the location of the primary cancer. If a patient had a primary lung cancer and metastatic tumors were found in the bone, those tumors would be called metastatic lung cancer. When it's found that a cancer has metastasized, it is commonly referred to as Stage IV cancer; with the previous example this cancer would be called Stage IV lung cancer.

The lungs are a common site for metastatic cancer.

An image of the lungs

How Does Cancer Spread or Metastasize?

To survive and grow, larger tumors need nutrients. The easiest way to obtain these nutrients reliably is through contact with blood vessels. To ensure their continued growth, tumors undergo a process called angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is when the tumor uses chemical signals to encourage the body to grow blood vessels into the tumor. There are numerous chemicals released, but perhaps one of the most important is the release of vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF. Unfortunately, in addition to allowing tumor growth, these new blood vessels also provide a clear path for cancer cells to spread throughout the body via the vascular system. The lymphatic system is structured in a similar manner to the vascular system, that is, it is a series of vessels that stretch throughout the entire body and transport fluid. The lymphatic system primary collects excess fluid from extracellular spaces, but it also transports particulate matter and sometimes cancer cells. Much like the vascular system, the lymphatic system provides an easy pathway from cancer cells to travel to far-reaching parts of the body. In the case of the lymphatic system however, immune cells often congregate in junctions called lymph nodes, where they can potentially identify cancer cells in addition to foreign pathogens. Because the lymphatic system is a common route for cancer cells to travel, the lymph nodes are also a common location for metastatic tumors.

Angiogenesis is the process by which new blood vessels sprout from existing ones to feed tumors.

Red blood cells traveling in a blood vessel

The steps cancer metastasize can be summarized as:

1. The cancer grows into surrounding tissue

2. The tumor grows through the walls of nearby lymphatic and blood vessel walls

3. Cells break away and travel through the lymphatic and/or vascular system

4. Move through distant vessel walls and into nearby tissues

5. The cancer reproduces and grows small tumors in this new location

6. Angiogenesis occurs, supplying the growing tumor with nutrients

Metastatic cancer cells can also remain inactive in these distant locations; they can sit idle for years before they begin to grow again.

Where Cancer Spreads

While metastatic tumors can form in many locations, they are most often found in the liver, bones, and lungs. This can can vary however, and metastatic tumors are often found in specific parts of the body dependent on the location of the primary cancer.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What stage is metastatic cancer?

Metastatic cancer is considered Stage IV cancer. Metastatic cancer is when secondary tumors are found in a different part of the body from the primary tumor.

What are the three common routes of metastasis?

The three common routes of metastasis are:

1. When the tumor grows into surrounding tissue

2. When cells travel through the bloodstream to a new location

3. When cells travel through the lymphatic vessels to a new location

What is meant by cancer metastasis?

Cancer metastasis is when cancer cells from a primary location, or primary cancer, break away and travel through the blood or lymphatic vessels to create tumors in a distant location in the body. These new tumors are called metastatic tumors.

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