Carcinoma of unknown primary (CUP) is a rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the body but the place the cancer began is not known.
Cancer can form in any tissue of the body. The primary cancer (the cancer that first formed) can spread to other parts of the body. This process is called metastasis. Cancer cells usually look like the cells in the type of tissue in which the cancer began. For example, breast cancer cells may spread to the lung. Because the cancer began in the breast, the cancer cells in the lung look like breast cancer cells.
Sometimes doctors find where the cancer has spread but cannot find where in the body the cancer first began to grow. This type of cancer is called a cancer of unknown primary (CUP) or occult primary tumor.
Tests are done to find where the primary cancer began and to get information about where the cancer has spread. When tests are able to find the primary cancer, the cancer is no longer a CUP and treatment is based on the type of primary cancer.
Sometimes the primary cancer is never found.
The primary cancer (the cancer that first formed) may not be found for one of the following reasons:
Different tests are used to detect (find) cancer.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
If tests show there may be cancer, a biopsy is done.
A biopsy is the removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist. The pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells and to find out the type of cancer. The type of biopsy that is done depends on the part of the body being tested for cancer. One of the following types of biopsies may be used:
If cancer is found, one or more of the following laboratory tests may be used to study the tissue samples and find out the type of cancer:
When the type of cancer cells or tissue removed is different from the type of cancer cells expected to be found, a diagnosis of CUP may be made.
The cells in the body have a certain look that depends on the type of tissue they come from. For example, a sample of cancer tissue taken from the breast is expected to be made up of breast cells. However, if the sample of tissue is a different type of cell (not made up of breast cells), it is likely that the cells have spread to the breast from another part of the body. In order to plan treatment, doctors first try to find the primary cancer (the cancer that first formed).
Tests and procedures used to find the primary cancer depend on where the cancer has spread.
The following tests and procedures may be done to find where the cancer first began:
Sometimes, none of the tests can find the primary cancer site. In these cases, treatment may be based on what the doctor thinks is the most likely type of cancer.
The signs and symptoms of CUP are different, depending on where the cancer has spread in the body.
Sometimes CUP does not cause any signs or symptoms. Signs and symptoms may be caused by CUP or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
There are different types of treatment for patients with carcinoma of unknown primary (CUP).
Different types of treatment are available for patients with CUP. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Four types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery is a common treatment for CUP. A doctor may remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it.
Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to increase the chances of a cure, is called adjuvant therapy.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a type of 3-dimensional (3-D) radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles. This type of radiation therapy is less likely to cause dry mouth, trouble swallowing, and damage to the skin.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is the use of two or more anticancer drugs.
Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that removes hormones or blocks their action and stops cancer cells from growing. Hormones are substances made by glands in the body and circulated in the bloodstream. Some hormones can cause certain cancers to grow. If tests show that the cancer cells have places where hormones can attach (receptors), drugs, surgery, or radiation therapy are used to reduce the production of hormones or block them from working.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.