Staging for cancer of unknown primary (CUP) | Cancer Research UK
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Staging for cancer of unknown primary (CUP)

Men and woman discussing unknown primary cancer

This page tells you about staging for cancer of unknown primary.

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

The stage of a cancer means how far it has grown and spread. It's normally worked out according to the size of a cancer and whether it has spread.

Staging systems are worked out for every type of cancer. Usually there are 4 stages, with stage 1 being an early cancer and stage 4 an advanced cancer.

A cancer of unknown primary must be stage 2 or higher if it has spread to lymph nodes. If it has spread to another body organ, it is a stage 4 cancer.

Generally, treatment for cancer is worked out according to stage. Staging is important with cancer of unknown primary, because it gives your doctor information about your outlook. It can be used to monitor how well treatments are working.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating CUP section.

 

 

What staging is

The stage of a cancer means how far it has grown and spread. It is normally worked out according to

  • The size of the primary tumour
  • Whether the cancer has spread to any nearby lymph nodes
  • Whether the cancer has spread to another part of the body

Staging systems are worked out for every type of cancer. So the staging for bowel cancers is different from the staging for breast cancer for instance. For most types of cancer there are 4 stages, with stage 1 being an early cancer and stage 4 an advanced cancer.

With cancer of unknown primary, the doctor doesn't know where the original cancer started. This sort of cancer must always be stage 2 or higher if it has spread to any lymph nodes. A cancer that has spread to another part of the body is a stage 4 cancer.

The most important staging information, when the primary cancer is unknown, is whether it has spread to another body organ or whether it is only in the lymph nodes.

 

Why doctors stage cancers

Staging is useful because generally the treatment for cancer is worked out according to the stage. Staging is important with unknown primary cancer, because it can help to predict your outlook, and can be used to compare new treatments.

Your doctor will use all the information they can gather to guide their treatment decisions. A combination of the results of your scans and tests will often suggest to a doctor the most likely source of the cancer. In some situations, your specialist may try some treatment to find out what the cancer responds to and how well it responds. This can also give a clue about the type of cancer it is.

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Updated: 24 July 2014