What Is Stage 4 Cancer?

Getting a stage 4 cancer diagnosis can be very stressful. It signifies the cancer has spread beyond its original location, impacting other parts of the body. In the US in 2024, there will likely be a little over 2 million new cancer cases diagnosed. While a cure may not always be the primary focus, there is still hope. Treatments can help manage the cancer, slow its growth, and, most importantly, allow you to live a longer, fulfilling life with good quality. 

This article will brief you on what stage 4 cancer entails, how it is diagnosed, explores treatment options, and offers insights into survival rates.

The Cancer Stages

First, cancer spreads by invading adjacent tissue. After that, it passes through blood vessels or lymph node walls. From there, it can proceed to other body parts via the circulation or lymphatic system. This is the cause of stage 4 cancer and metastases.

Your medical staff will designate a stage, ranging from 0 to 4, after evaluating your malignant growth and assessing its spread. This figure aids the team in figuring out your prognosis and course of treatment. Among the phases of cancer are:

Stage 0: This stage is also known as carcinoma in situ, and it occurs when abnormal cells are present but have not disseminated.

Stage 1: There is cancer, but it has not spread to neighboring tissues.

Stage 2: Cancer has spread to the surrounding tissues. It can also reach the lymph nodes.

Stage 3: Cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage 4: The cancer has progressed to other parts of the body.

Substages of Cancer

Sub-stages exist in several stage 4 malignancies. For instance, stage 4A may be applied to prostate cancer at stage 4. This indicates that it has reached nearby lymph nodes. 

Stage 4B denotes a further spread of the malignancy that may have affected distal lymph nodes or bones.

Major Cancer Types in Stage 4  

It is crucial to understand that while some cancers are more aggressive and prone to spread, all cancers have the potential to progress to stage 4. This emphasizes how essential early detection and rapid medical attention are. Although it can spread to any body organ, the liver, lungs, and bones are the most often affected areas.  

Stage 4 cancers can take many different forms:    

  • Breast cancer: It may go to the brain, breast, liver, lungs, and bones.
  • Lung cancer: It may disperse to the brain, lungs, liver, adrenal glands, and bones.
  • Prostate cancer: May metastasize to the liver, lungs, adrenal glands, and bones.
  • Melanoma: Can affect the skin, muscles, liver, brain, bones, and lungs.
  • Pancreatic cancer: May disseminate to the peritoneum, lungs, and liver.
  • Colon cancer: Has the potential to spread to the peritoneum, liver, and lungs.
  • Uterine cancer: Can spread to the peritoneum, liver, lungs, bones, and vagina 

How Is Cancer in Stage 4 Diagnosed?  

The stage 4 cancer diagnosis will be made by your oncology team using a variety of medical tests. For stage 4 cancer, diagnostic testing consists of the following:

  • Biopsy: A tissue sample is taken out and sent to a lab to check for malignant cells.
  • X-ray: This imaging exam shows the bones or interior organs.
  • Endoscopy: This procedure involves inserting a tiny tube into the body to view an internal organ.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This is an analysis that uses powerful magnets to take many X-ray images at different angles.
  • Blood tests: A complete blood count (CBC) and tumor markers can be used to measure blood cell counts and identify cancerous cells, among other things.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: This radiation test finds the tumor and measures its dimensions.
  • PET (positron emission tomography) scan: This nuclear scan finds cancer cells throughout the body and assesses how far they have spread.  

Treatments for Stage 4 Cancer

For stage 4 cancer, there are numerous therapeutic choices. Your specific treatment strategy will be based on your type of cancer, its stage of dissemination, your symptoms, and your general health. 

Usually, stage 4 cancer treatment aims to halt or reduce the cancer’s spread. Possible course of treatment options include: 

  • Immunotherapy: The mechanism of immunotherapy is to enhance the immune system’s defense against cancerous cells.
  • Targeted therapy: Drugs specifically targeting particular proteins or genetic alterations fall under this category. This may inhibit cancer’s spread.
  • Chemotherapy: When treating stage 4 cancer, chemotherapy is frequently used. It describes medications that destroy rapidly proliferating cells, such as cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy: If a tumor is producing discomfort or bothersome symptoms, your healthcare team may suggest shrinking it using radiation therapy.
  • Surgery: When a cancer is stage 4, surgery is typically not an option. Nonetheless, your medical team can advise surgery if it is feasible to remove malignant tumors that are producing bothersome symptoms. 


The affected organs determine most stage 4 cancer symptoms, while some may not manifest at all. The prognosis for a patient with stage 4 cancer is typically not good; this is often stated in terms of survival rate. However, it varies according to the type of cancer. Instead of curing stage 4 cancer, the goal of treatment is to manage symptoms, enhance quality of life, and attempt to stop the disease from getting worse.  

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