Having advanced cancer
Some people have advanced cancer when they are first diagnosed. Others have cancer that becomes advanced at a later time.
Whatever the situation, it is very distressing to learn that you have advanced cancer. It is important to talk to your specialist about what this means for you and what your options are.
What you need to know
What is advanced cancer?
Advanced cancer is when the cancer has spread from where it started and moved into surrounding areas or to other parts of the body.
Some people have advanced cancer when they are first diagnosed. Other people have a recurrence of their cancer years after their original treatment.
Having advanced cancer can mean different things for different people. Some people may live with advanced cancer for months to years. Their cancer can be like a chronic illness. For others the cancer can progress rapidly. It is important to understand what it means for you and what your treatment options are.
Remember everyone’s cancer and how they respond to treatment is unique.
Remission and relapse in acute leukaemia
The purpose of initial treatment for acute leukaemia is to achieve a remission. This is where there is no evidence of leukaemia cells in the body.
After initial treatment, people may:
- stay in remission for an extended time
- continue to have leukaemia cells in the bone marrow – known as refractory or resistant disease
- go into remission but the leukaemia returns at a later date – known as a relapse or recurrence.
For those who have resistant disease or a relapse, more treatment will needed. Your haematologist will discuss your treatment options with you.
What to ask or talk about
When you have advanced cancer you may be offered treatment to control the cancer. Controlling the cancer means it won’t be cured, but its growth may be slowed or even stopped.
You can also have treatment to manage any symptoms and maximise your quality of life. This is called palliative care. You can have palliative care even when you are still having other treatments. Your treating specialist can refer you to the palliative care team.
You need to weigh up the possible benefits and side effects of any treatment, and decide what is right for you. You may find a treatment easy to tolerate, or it could be difficult to cope with, and have a negative impact on your life.
If you do not think you are getting enough benefit out of having treatment, talk with your doctor about your options. You have the right to refuse or stop a treatment if you do not see the value in it. If you choose to stop a particular treatment, this does not mean that you have to refuse all care.
Dealing with the news
A diagnosis of advanced cancer can cause many emotions, including fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, sadness, loneliness or denial. You may be uncertain about what this means for you.
Making decisions about your ongoing treatment and care, and letting your loved ones know your choices, may make things easier for all of you.
Your priorities may start to change. Spending time with loved ones, doing different activities, and the simpler things in life may bring you the most pleasure.
If you have received news of advanced cancer and are having trouble coping, there are ways you can get support or advice. Your doctor or nurse, or the Cancer Council Information and Support line, are all good places to ask for help. Make a list of the questions you want to ask.
It can help to talk about your feelings with people you trust, even when it is difficult or painful. You may want to talk to a social worker, counsellor or psychologist. You can ask your doctor or nurse to refer you.
It is also a good idea to discuss advance care planning, so that someone else can see that your wishes are carried out if you are unable to make these decisions.