The cells in a metastatic tumor resemble those in the primary tumor. Once the cancerous tissue is examined under a microscope to determine the cell type, a doctor can usually tell whether that type of cell is normally found in the part of the body from which the tissue sample was taken. Metastatic cancers may be found at the same time as the primary tumor, or months or years later. When a second tumor is found in a patient that has been treated for cancer in the past, it is more often a metastasis than another primary tumor.
It was previously thought that most cancer cells have a low metastatic potential and that there are rare cells that develop the ability to metastasize through the development of somatic mutations. According to this theory, diagnosis of metastatic cancers is only possible after the event of metastasis. Traditional means of diagnosing cancer (e.g. a biopsy) would only investigate a subpopulation of the cancer cells and would very likely not sample from the subpopulation with metastatic potential.
Expression of this metastatic signature has been correlated with a poor prognosis and has been shown to be consistent in several types of cancer. Prognosis was shown to be worse for individuals whose primary tumors expressed the metastatic signature. Additionally, the expression of these metastatic-associated genes was shown to apply to other cancer types in addition to adenocarcinoma. Metastases of breast cancer, medulloblastoma and prostate cancer all had similar expression patterns of these metastasis-associated genes.
The identification of this metastasis-associated signature provides promise for identifying cells with metastatic potential within the primary tumor and hope for improving the prognosis of these metastatic-associated cancers. Additionally, by identifying the genes whose expression is changed in metastasis offers potential targets to inhibit metastasis.
Treatment and survival is determined, to a great extent, by whether or not a cancer remains localized or spreads to other locations in the body. If the cancer metastasizes to other tissues or organs it usually dramatically increases a patient's likelihood of death. Some cancers—such as some forms of leukemia, a cancer of the blood, or malignancies in the brain—can kill without spreading at all.
Once a cancer has metastasized it may still be treated with radiosurgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biological therapy, hormone therapy, surgery, or a combination of these interventions ("multimodal therapy"). The choice of treatment depends on a large number of factors, including the type of primary cancer, the size and location of the metastases, the patient's age and general health, and the types of treatments used previously. In patients diagnosed with CUP it is often still possible to treat the disease even when the primary tumor cannot be located.
Current treatments are rarely able to cure metastatic cancer though some tumors, such as testicular cancer and thyroid cancer, are usually still curable.