Advanced cancer is also called metastatic cancer, secondary cancer, or stage 4 (IV) cancer.

What is advanced cancer?

Advanced cancer is when cancer cells have spread from where they first grew to other parts of the body.

The most common areas that cancer may spread to are the bones, liver, lungs, and brain.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


Sometimes, cancer has spread through the body and doctors are unable to find where it first started. This is diagnosed as cancer of unknown primary. 

The difference between advanced cancer and terminal cancer

Advanced cancer is a term used to describe cancer that is unlikely to be curable but can be managed with treatment.

This is why many people with some types of advanced cancer live well and for a long time.

Terminal cancer is when the cancer is no longer responding to any treatment. Having more treatment or a different treatment is not likely to help. If you have terminal cancer, any medication you are given is to keep you comfortable as you near the end of your life.

After a diagnosis

If your test results show cancer, this can be a difficult time, and feelings can change from one moment to the next. 

Everyone reacts differently when they learn they have cancer. There is no right or wrong way to feel. 

Talk about your treatment options with your doctor, family and friends. Ask for as much information as you need. It is up to you how involved you want to be in decisions about your treatment. 

How long will I live?

When you hear you have advanced cancer, you may wonder how long you have left to live.

This can be a difficult question to ask, and hard for your doctor to answer with any certainty. You could ask your doctor to describe the best-case scenario, worst-case scenario and typical outcomes for your cancer.

How long you live will depend on things such as:

  • the type of cancer
  • how well you respond to treatment
  • the way the cancer grows
  • your general health

It is also OK not to ask this question or to say that you don't want to know. It is always your choice, and your feelings about this may change.

Treatment of advanced cancer

The treatment for advanced cancer will depend on:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • where it is in your body
  • your general health

The aim of the treatment is to control the cancer for as long as possible, improve any symptoms, and improve your quality of life.

Sometimes treatment can shrink the size of the cancer or even stop it from growing for a while.

Palliative care

Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life. It is not just about end of life care. 

Palliative care will help:

  • you to enjoy the best quality of life you can for as long as possible
  • make sure that your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs are looked after as well as possible
  • manage symptoms of your cancer
  • manage side effects of treatment
  • help you to feel in control of your situation
  • make your time as positive as it can be for you and your family/whānau

Speak with your treatment team about palliative care options for you and your family/whānau.

Using complementary or traditional healing

Sometimes people with cancer might think about using complementary therapies or traditional healing.

Some alternative, complementary and traditional healing methods may react with the treatment you receive and cause harmful side-effects.

It is important to talk to your treatment team about any other therapies you’re using or thinking about because they may interfere with hospital treatment.

Advance care planning

Advance care planning helps you think and talk about the end of your life and the treatments and care you might want.

It allows you and your health care providers to work together to ensure that your choices about treatment and care in the future are heard.

An advance care plan will guide your doctors and family/whānau in making decisions if you cannot make them yourself.

It is completely up to you if you want to make an advanced care plan.

Need someone to talk to?
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0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have nurses and counsellors to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: August 13, 2021