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What is advanced cancer?

Advanced cancer

Cancer is a disease of the cells, which are the body’s basic building blocks. It occurs when abnormal cells divide and multiply in an uncontrolled way. Advanced cancer means the cancer has spread from the original (primary) site or has come back (recurred).

Health professionals use several different terms to describe cancer that has moved beyond early stages, including secondary, metastatic, stage 4 and advanced. Sometimes health professionals don’t use a particular name. Regardless of the words used, it’s frightening to hear that the cancer has spread or come back.

The cancer that first develops in an organ or tissue is known as the primary cancer. It is considered locally advanced if the tumour is very large or the cancer has spread to nearby tissues.

If cancer cells from the primary site break away and travel through the bloodstream or lymph vessels to other parts of the body, they can grow and form another tumour at a new site. This is called a secondary cancer or metastasis.

Image of how cancer spreads with accompanying text


Getting help and support

This may be the first time you consider end-of-life issues and advanced cancer. Take your time. Read what seems useful now and leave the rest until you’re ready. If you or your family have any questions, call Cancer Council on 13 11 20. Ask about joining  a support group or our  online discussion forum to connect with others who have a similar experience. 

You may find information about facing the end of life or understanding palliative care more useful at this time. The podcast, The Thing About Advanced Cancer,  provides insights to help you navigate through these challenging times.

Ways to share how you're feeling

Everyone responds to a cancer diagnosis in their own way. How you feel and how you want to communicate that can also change over time and may depend on how well you feel or what other things are going on in your life. You might like to share your experience using some of the ideas below: 

Choose a key contact - Some people find that having one family member or friend as a central contact person means you don’t have to repeat information. You can tell that person what information you are happy for them to share – and what areas you might need some help with – and they can manage people’s concerns along with their offers of help. 

Use technology - There are many ways to keep friends and family updated when you don’t have the time or energy to talk with people individually. Use text messages, email, blogs or social media, or write one letter and send copies to friends and family. 

Have open conversations - It can help to be open, honest and direct about when you need to share, and what you need most. For example, a text saying you’d like to talk on the phone and is now a good time or asking if you can catch up in person as you need a hug and someone to listen more than a big conversation. 

Get creative - You can explore your feelings by writing in a journal, creating artwork or composing a song. You can choose whether to share your work or keep it to yourself or save it as a gift for someone later. 

When you don’t want to talk - Sometimes you may not want to share your fears and concerns with your family and friends. This is completely normal. Rather than ignoring messages, it can help to let people know if you just don’t want to talk right now. 

Services for people with advanced cancer and carers

Carer services
Counselling and mentoring services
Day-to-day help
Future planning
 Legal and financial information
Palliative care


After a diagnosis of advanced cancer, some people want to find out how long they have left to live, while others don't. 

As everyone is different, a doctor can give you an estimate based on what usually happens to people in your situation, but can’t say exactly what will happen to you. The actual time could be longer or shorter.

Not all people with advanced cancer die from it – for some people, improved treatments can keep the disease under control for months or years. Other people find that different health issues become more serious than the cancer. 

Question checklist

Asking your doctor questions will help you make an informed choice about your treatment and care. You may want to include some of the questions below in your own list.  Palliative Care Australia also has recommended questions to ask your treating team.

  • What type of cancer do I have?
  • How far has the cancer spread? How fast is it growing?
  • What is my prognosis? How long am I likely to live?
  • What treatment do you recommend and why?
  • Are there other treatment choices for me? If not, why not?
  • Are there any clinical trials I can join?
  • Are there any complementary therapies that might help?
  • What treatment do you suggest for any pain or discomfort?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment?
  • What will happen if I don’t have treatment?
  • Can I have palliative care?
  • Can I call the palliative care team at any time?
  • Does the palliative care team inform my GP and other specialists about my care?
  • Do I have to pay for any palliative care services?
  • Can you help me talk to my family about what is happening? 


Facing the end of your life

Some people find the uncertainty of having advanced cancer the most challenging aspect. When faced with the possibility of dying, people often think about what they’d like to achieve in the time they have left. They may begin to live day by day, or take control of their life by completing practical tasks, such as preparing a will or planning the funeral. 

Learn more

Listen to the podcast, The Thing About Advanced Cancer , or call our trusted cancer nurses on 13 11 20 for support. 


Living with Advanced Cancer

Download our Living with Advanced Cancer booklet to learn more and find support

Download now  


Expert content reviewers:

Prof Nicholas Glasgow, Head, Calvary Palliative and End of Life Care Research Institute, ACT; Kathryn Bennett, Nurse Practitioner, Eastern Palliative Care Association Inc., VIC; Dr Maria Ftanou, Head, Clinical Psychology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and Research Fellow, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne, VIC; Erin Ireland, Legal Counsel, Cancer Council NSW; Nikki Johnston, Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner, Clare Holland House, Calvary Public Hospital Bruce, ACT; Judy Margolis, Consumer; Linda Nolte, Program Director, Advance Care Planning Australia; Kate ReedCox, Nurse Practitioner, National Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia; Helena Rodi, Project Manager, Advance Care Planning Australia; Kaitlyn Thorne, Coordinator Cancer Support, 13 11 20, Cancer Council Queensland.

Page last updated:

The information on this webpage was adapted from Living with Advanced Cancer - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2019 edition). This webpage was last updated in September 2021. 

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