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What are primary and metastatic tumors?

Juliet Wilkinson
Oncology Nursing
Primary and metastatic tumors are two locational terms used to describe cancer and its' spread. Your primary tumor (lung, liver, colon, etc.) is the original tumor. Metastatic tumors travel from the primary tumor to other organs (brain, skin, prostate). For example, if you are diagnosed with breast cancer and found to have another tumor in your lungs, the lung tumor would be metastatic (traveling) while the breast cancer would be the primary tumor.

Primary tumors of the CNS are growths that begin in the brain or spinal cord. They can be either malignant or benign and are identified by the types of cells they contain, their location, or both. Most primary CNS tumors occur in adults.

Metastatic, or secondary, tumors in the CNS are caused by cancer cells that break away from the primary tumor that developed in a non-CNS part of the body. These tumors are named after the type of cancer that causes them. Metastastic tumors (also called metastases) to the brain occur in about one-fourth of all cancers that develop in other parts of the body, such as cancer of the lung, breast, or kidneys; or melanoma, a form of skin cancer. They are more common than primary tumors and occur more often in adults than in children.

Metastatic spine tumors usually form within the bony covering of the spinal column but may also invade the spinal canal from the chest or abdomen.

While cancers elsewhere in the body can easily cause tumors inside the brain and spinal cord, CNS tumors rarely spread outside the nervous system.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.