Advanced cancer

Advanced cancer is a term commonly used to describe cancer that 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.

This page outlines:

What happens now?

Some people’s cancer may be advanced when they are first diagnosed. For others, the cancer may have spread or come back (recur) after treatment. Advanced cancer usually can’t be cured, but it can be controlled. This is known as palliative treatment. Sometimes treatment can shrink the cancer, stop or slow the spread of advanced cancer, or relieve side effects. This can help maintain quality of life for several years. In this case, the cancer may be considered a chronic (long-term) disease. Some people join clinical trials to try new treatments.

What treatment options are available to me?

Treatment will depend on where the cancer started, how far has spread, and your general health, treatment goals and preferences for care. Common treatments include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, targeted therapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy. These may be used alone or in combination.

Treatments can be used for different reasons, so talk to your health care team about the aim of each treatment.

Am I going to die?

After a diagnosis of advanced cancer, some people want to find out how long the have left to live, while others prefer not to know. It’s a very personal decision.

If you would like to know the expected outcome (prognosis) of the cancer, you will need to talk to your doctor. This is a difficult question for your doctor to answer and you may find their response is vague. 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 that then cancer.

Some people find the uncertainty of having advanced cancer the mot 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 advanced care directive, or planning the funeral.

If you have questions about dying, call Cancer Council for a free copy of the Facing End of Life booklet

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is person-centred care that helps people with a progressive life-limiting illness to live as fully and comfortable as possible. The main goal is to help you maintain your quality of life by identifying and meeting your physical, emotional, cultural, social and spiritual needs. It also provides support to families and carers. Read more about understanding palliative care.

Caring for someone with advanced cancer

Being a carer can be stressful. You may be concerned about how the person with cancer will be affected, if they will be in pain, become depressed, or die. You can view more information on caring for someone with cancer online or refer to the Caring for Someone with Cancer booklet.

Seeking support

It is normal to experience a range of emotions when you find out you have advanced cancer. You will need time to gather your thoughts and feelings. You and your family or carers will also need to consider practical and financial issues. Cancer Council has many professional services and support programs that are here to help you. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out more.

Click on our services below to find out more about:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.

For more information see our Living with Advanced Cancer booklet or call 13 11 20 to order a copy


For 24/7 palliative care and support services call 1800 772 273 or visit

The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our Disclaimer.