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The staging and prognosis of cancer of unknown primary


Staging is a way to describe the spread of cancer. CUP cannot be given a stage because the primary cancer is not known and the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body when it is found.


Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for anyone to predict the exact course of the disease. To work out your prognosis, your doctor will consider test results; the type of CUP you have; the location, rate and depth of tumour growth; how well you respond to treatment; the impact the cancer has had on your health; and factors such as your age, fitness and medical history.

Although most cases of CUP can’t be cured, treatment can keep some cancers under control for months or years. For example, some people who have CUP in just one small area (e.g. in a lymph node in the neck) are able to achieve long-term control, or sometimes even a cure, with surgery or high-dose chemoradiation (a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy). Whatever the prognosis, palliative treatment can relieve symptoms such as pain to improve quality of life. It can be used at any stage of advanced cancer.

Discussing your prognosis and thinking about the future can be challenging and stressful. It is important to know that although the statistics for CUP can be frightening, they are an average and may not apply to your situation. Talk to your doctor about how to interpret any statistics that you come across.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last updated June 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Linda Mileshkin, Medical Oncologist, Clinical Researcher, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Christine Bradfield, Consumer; Cindy Bryant, Consumer; Dr Maria Cigolini, Head, Department of Palliative Medicine, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and Clinical Lecturer, The University of Sydney, NSW; Mary Duffy, Advanced Practice Nurse and Nurse Coordinator, Lung Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Karen Hall, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Andrew Oar, Radiation Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Dr Siobhan O’Neill, Medical Oncologist, Nelune Comprehensive Cancer Centre, NSW; Prof Penelope Schofield, Department of Psychological Sciences and the Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology, and Head, Behavioural Science in Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Frank Stoss, Consumer.