Carcinoma Of Unknown Primary

What is unknown primary cancer?

Unknown primary cancer, otherwise known as cancer of unknown primary, is a term used to describe cancer that has been found without doctors knowing where it first developed. Unknown primary cancer means that cancer has spread from another part of the body without doctors being able to diagnose the primary site. Doctors will try to find the primary site and, if they do find it, the cancer will be renamed according to the location or type of cancer; for example, if the primary site is the lung, the patient will be diagnosed with lung cancer. Around 3 percent of cancer cases in the UK are unknown primary cancer.

Symptoms of unknown primary cancer

Different people will experience different symptoms, according to the type of secondary cancer they are found to have. Symptoms may include:

  • Breathlessness and breathing difficulties, fluid in the lungs or chest pain: these are usually symptomatic of secondary lung cancer
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite or jaundice: these are usually symptomatic of secondary liver cancer
  • Pain in the bones: this may be symptomatic of bone cancer
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Paleness and generally feeling tired and breathless

How is unknown primary cancer diagnosed?

If you experience symptoms, notice changes in your appetite or bowel movements or generally feel unwell, it is advisable to see your GP. Such a medical professional will ask you a series of questions and they may also examine you. They will then refer you to a specialist for further tests, which may include blood tests, biopsy samples, MRI scans and CT scans to help them reach a concrete diagnosis.

What causes unknown primary cancer?

In many cases, the cause of cancer is unknown. However, some types of cancer are linked to certain risk factors; for example, smoking is associated with a higher risk of lung cancer, but if the primary cancer is unknown, it is almost impossible to determine the cause.

How is unknown primary cancer treated?

Unknown primary cancer can be incredibly difficult to treat, as the primary site may never be found. However, there are treatments available that can be used to manage the condition and help alleviate symptoms. The most common treatments include radiotherapy, hormonal therapy and chemotherapy, but the treatment plan will vary according to the individual.

What is the outlook for unknown primary cancer?

The outlook depends on the individual case. Usually, if cancer has spread, the outlook is not very positive, but cancer can be effectively managed in some cases.

Living with unknown primary cancer

Living with cancer can be very difficult, especially if you do not have a firm diagnosis and your future looks very uncertain. Your care team will do their utmost to help you, but if you need support, information or guidance about dealing with cancer, contact the cancer charities operating in the UK.

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