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What Does ‘Incurable’ or 'Metastatic' Cancer Mean?

Incurable cancer is a term used when cancer has:

  • Grown to be too big for treatment to work
  • Come back after treatment

Metastatic cancer is a term used when cancer has:

  • Spread to other parts of the body

Treatments do not always control cancer. Sometimes, when the cancer is found late, it might be hard to remove or kill all the cancer cells. And occasionally, even when cancer is found early it does not work well or stops working. 

When this happens, the cancer can usually be controlled but not cured. This is a hard thing to hear and you may feel overwhelmed, but what this means for you depends on a lot of different things. For
some people, the cancer can be kept under control for months or years and people continue to live their normal daily life for some time.

Most patients with incurable and metastatic cancer will still see their cancer specialist. They may also see other healthcare professionals like a palliative care team, or a palliative or supportive care specialist.

The aim of treatment is to keep you feeling as well as possible for as long as possible. You may still have treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. 

Metastatic Cancer

Metastatic cancer (also known as Stage 4 or advanced cancer) happens when cancer spreads from the head and neck to other parts of the body (via the lymph system?). This can happen months or
years after a Head and Neck Cancer diagnosis, or it may be the first diagnosis a person receives.

Palliative care

Palliative care improves the quality of life of patients and their families who are faced with an illness that cannot be cured. It helps by finding problems early, and working out what will help for pain and other problems, whether physical, emotional, social or spiritual.

Palliative care is not only for people who are dying. Palliative care can help you live for as long as possible in the best way you can, within the limits of your illness.

There are many benefits of palliative care including:

  • helping to accept your diagnosis
  • having someone (a community nurse or a palliative care nurse) look after your care needs
  • helping you to feel less alone, less hopeless or that you can’t cope
  • helping you to stay at home by visiting or calling you
  • supporting your family or caregivers
  • preparing you and your loved ones for what’s to come
  • helping to get your affairs in order.

Depending on your cancer and what you want, palliative care might involve your GP and a community nurse visiting you at home or it might involve hospital care and more members of the palliative care team.

The Palliative Care Team

Palliative care can involve support from medical, nursing and allied health professionals, as well as caregivers and volunteers. We call this the palliative care team. People involved in your palliative care team may include:

  • GP
  • Nurse
  • Dietitian
  • Palliative care specialist
  • Cancer specialist (oncologist)
  • Counsellor or psychologist, social worker
  • Occupational therapist or physiotherapist
  • Pastoral carer, chaplain or spiritual adviser

You, your family and caregivers are part of the team who make treatment and care decisions. For some patients, visiting a palliative care or supportive care specialist in a hospital clinic may help to set up a care program for your needs. Your palliative care team can also help to coordinate complementary therapies, exercise, diet and psychosocial support, which can often be provided at your local hospital.

Symptom Management (including pain)

Managing symptoms is an important part of palliative care. This means keeping you feeling as well as possible when you have pain or other symptoms, such as nausea and loss of appetite. Not everyone with incurable cancer will have pain, but many people will have it some of the time. There are many ways pain can be looked after. Your palliative care team can work with you to find the best way to ease your pain, which may include complementary therapies.

It is important to speak with your palliative care team about the best options for you.

Accessing Palliative Care

Palliative care is provided in many different places, including at home, in a hospital clinic or inpatient unit. The palliative care team will help you get the care and support you need in the best place for you.

You can find a directory of palliative care services in Australia by visiting the National Palliative Care Service Directory

Coping with the News

Being diagnosed with any cancer is an emotional experience. To hear that your cancer is advanced and may be incurable is even harder. While we all know that death is a natural part of life, finding out that it may be closer than you thought can be a shock and hard to believe.

You may worry about work or money, or feel afraid about what will happen, how you will tell your loved ones, or getting your affairs in order.

People react in different ways and there is no right or wrong way to feel. It is common for people to experience a mixture of feelings at different times including:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Uncertainty
  • Sadness
  • Flat or depressed

Many people describe this time as "an emotional rollercoaster, with many ups and downs". However, you don't need to go through these feelings alone. There is support available to help you cope at this difficult time.

Telling Others

Some people choose to share the news of their cancer with other people while others would rather keep it private. This is up to you, but many people find telling their friends and family helps to take in the news and to cope with the next stage.

It can be hard to tell people, so you may find it helpful to:

  • plan who to tell and what you might want to say to them
  • choose a place where you feel comfortable
  • think of what you would say to questions they might have (although you don’t need to have all the answers)
  • be prepared that people may be upset or may not say much at first.

You may also want to talk to a member of your palliative care team or a psychologist about how to tell your family and friends.

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