Advanced cancer

Cancer is a disease of the cells, which are the body’s basic building blocks.

There are many different types of cancer, and each type develops differently. Some grow slowly, some advance rapidly, and others behave unpredictably.

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 tissue.

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 secondary cancer or metastasis.

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 it 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. These treatments are often used as part of palliative treatment.

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

How long have I got

After a diagnosis of advanced cancer, some people want to find out how long they 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 than the cancer.

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 advanced care directive, or planning the funeral.

If you have questions about dying, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of the Facing End of Life booklet

Will palliative care help

Palliative care is an approach that helps people with advanced cancer to live as fully and comfortably as possible. It is sometimes called supportive care. The main goal is to help you maintain your quality of life by identifying and dealing with your physical, emotional, cultural, social and spiritual needs. It involves a range of services offered by doctors, nurses and allied health professionals such as physiotherapists, dietitians and psychologists, as well as volunteers and carers.

Palliative care also offers 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 about living with advanced cancer, facing end of life, palliative care, and caring for someone with cancer, please download these resources.

If you are a patient, family or friend and would like to order a copy of any of these booklets, please call Cancer Council 13 11 20.


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.