How Does Metastasis Cause Death?

Reviewed on 3/10/2022
Illustration of metastatic cancer cells
When cancer metastasizes, usually when it is considered stage 4 cancer, it spreads to a different part of the body. Metastasis can impair the function of essential organs and body systems (digestion, lungs, bones, liver, blood vessels), which can cause essential body functions to cease.

Cancer is called metastatic when it spreads from where it originates to a different part of the body. For many types of cancer, this is considered stage 4 cancer

Any type of cancer can metastasize (spread) depending on: 

  • The type of cancer: some cancers are more likely to spread than others
  • How fast the cancer is growing
  • Other factors about the behavior of the cancer 

When cancer metastasizes, it impairs the function of essential organs and body systems. If these organs and systems do not work properly, essential body functions may cease. For example:

  • Cancer in the digestive system may prevent absorption of calories and nutrition from the food you eat causing malnutrition 
  • Cancer in the lung can prevent the lung tissue from absorbing the oxygen the body needs
  • Cancer in the bones can cause calcium to be released into the bloodstream, affecting the calcium balance in the body, and high levels of calcium can cause unconsciousness and death
    • Cancer in bone marrow can cause the body to be unable to produce new red blood cells which carry oxygen to the body’s tissues, new white blood cells which fight infection, and new platelets which help blood to clot
  • Cancer in the liver can disrupt the chemical balance in the body causing a buildup of chemicals and toxins
  • Cancer that damages blood vessels can cause uncontrollable bleeding

In addition, most cancer treatment currently focuses on inhibiting cancer growth, rather than intervention of metastasis

What Are Symptoms of Metastatic Cancer?

Metastatic cancer may not cause any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, it usually depends on the size and location of the metastatic tumors and may 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
  • Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice) or swelling in the belly, when cancer has spread to the liver

General signs and symptoms of metastatic cancer may include:

How Is Metastatic Cancer Treated?

Most of the time metastatic cancer cannot be cured. The goal of treatment for metastatic cancers is to slow growth, reduce symptoms, and prolong the patient’s life as long as possible with as much quality as possible. 

The treatment for metastatic cancer depends on:

  • The original cancer and where it started
  • How much the cancer has metastasized and where it is located
  • How quickly the cancer is spreading 
  • The patient’s age and health

Treatment for metastases may be different from treatment for the original tumor. Treatments for metastatic cancers include one or more of the following: 

The goals of treatment may change during a patient’s care, depending on how a person reacts to the treatment, and how the cancer responds to the treatment. Palliative care to help manage side effects of the cancer and the treatment may be employed. Palliative care is aimed at reducing side effects of treatment and improving quality of life. 

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Reviewed on 3/10/2022
Image Source: iStock Images