Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Cancer by the Numbers: Cancer of the unknown primary

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Cancer is named from the place it originates. This makes a difference on what type of treatments will be effective. Being diagnosed with cancer of the unknown primary (CUP) means that cancer has been found in the body but the place of origin is unknown.

If later, the place of origin is found then the type of cancer diagnosis changes from an unknown primary to the specific organ or body area that the disease first began.

Some cases of cancer of the unknown primary are unfortunately never found. Physicians will then decide on the best course of treatment based on two factors: The way the cells look under the microscope and which organs are currently involved.

Statistics and Prognosis:

The exact number of cases of this disease is not known. It may be about 2% to 5% of all cancers in the United States. It is found more often among men than among women. The average age of people with this cancer is about 60 years.

This is a very dangerous cancer. Only half of patients will live 9 to 12 months after their cancer is found. There are several reasons why this cancer is so serious. First, most of these are fast-spreading cancers. Second, because the exact type is not known, it is harder for doctors to know what treatment is best. Also, the cancer is often widespread, making it harder to cure.

In recent years, microscopic and other diagnostic techniques have improved dramatically. For this reason, doctors can now determine the primary site in about four out of five cases.


After looking at the results of all the tests, the doctor will place the patient's disease in one of these 3 groups:

  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • adenocarcinoma
  • poorly differentiated malignant neoplasm

Based on this grouping, and on the place where the cancer was found, the doctor will decide what other tests may need to be done in order to further classify the cancer and decide on the best treatment plan for you.


Cancer of the unknown primary is hard to stage. It is found at advanced stages, if not then it would not be an unknown primary diagnosis. So, this type of cancer is at least Stage II or higher.


Treatment could include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. It depends on that patient's grouping and staging and also other factors. You can read in depth here about the treatment options available.

The Future:

Because many patients with cancer of unknown primary face a serious prognosis, the need for advances in treatment is obvious. Clinical trials of new treatments are essential if progress is to occur. Some of these trials are testing new chemotherapy drugs, new drug combinations, and new ways to administer these drugs. Other clinical trials are studying new approaches to treatment, such as biological therapy, immunotherapy, and gene therapy. Because CUP is a very diverse category of many types of cancers, progress against CUP is likely to depend on continued progress toward understanding the molecular basis of all cancers.

I read a blog about a girl named Lori who has cancer of the unknown primary. Her blog is called Too Sexy for My Hair. She is an amazing woman and has a very inspirational story to share. Last I read she was in remission!

Some further resources about cancer of the unknown primary:

American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


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