Living with Cancer of Unknown Primary

Cancers of unknown primary denotes cancer for which the origin is unclear. Cancers classified as having an unknown primary are grouped according to the type of cancer cell. Squamous cell cancers, which are found in the skin and linings of certain organs, are most common. Adenocarcinomas start in gland cells and can also be found in many organs in the body. Approximately 31,000 cases of cancer of unknown primary are estimated to be diagnosed in the United States each year. The five-year survival rates for cancers of unknown primary vary widely because the exact type and origin of the cancer is unspecified.

Because the origins of cancers of unknown primary are unidentified, it is difficult to assess risk factors. However, autopsies show that many of cancers of unknown primary started in the pancreas, lungs, kidneys, throat, larynx, or esophagus – organs which are particularly susceptible to smoking. Cancers of unknown origin that begin in the stomach, colon, or rectum point to diet, nutrition, and obesity as risk factors. Symptoms of cancer of unknown primary include swollen lymph nodes, pain that does not go away, a change in bowel or bladder habits, fever or night sweats, unexplained weight loss, and persistent cough. The stages of cancers of unknown primary range from I to IV, depending on tumor size and extent of spreading. Treatments for cancers of unknown primary include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of these.

For more information on cancers of unknown primary, read the American Cancer Society's detailed guide.

If you have been affected by cancers of unknown primary, please be sure to take some time to read others' experiences, share your own experiences, and ask or answer questions.

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