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Cancer of Unknown Primary Origin

What is cancer of unknown primary origin?

Cancer of unknown primary origin presents as a lump in the neck, but the origin of the metastasis (cancer spreading from one area to another) is not apparent because there are no symptoms other than the lump.  The goal of physicians is to find and treat the origin of the metastasis. 

What are the symptoms of cancer of unknown primary origin?

The only symptom of cancer of unknown primary origin is a lump or mass. Because patients don't present with additional symptoms, it isn't immediately clear where the metastasis originated.

How is cancer of unknown primary origin diagnosed?

A fine needle aspiration biopsy is performed on the tumor to determine whether it is cancerous or benign.

How is cancer of unknown primary origin treated?

The first step of treatment is to find the location where the cancer originated. After a careful examination of the mouth and throat in the doctor's office, your physician will order imaging tests based on the information they've received from the biopsy. MRI, CT scans, and PET scans are used to attempt to find the origin.  If the origin is still unknown, some patients will have a thorough mouth and throat examination under anesthesia, where additional biopsies may also be performed.

If the point of origination of the metastasis is discovered, treatment will be initiated appropriate to the specific origin. However, if no origin is discovered after imaging and more thorough examinations, a treatment plan will be developed using the information gathered from the biopsies.  Patients in this situation will usually undergo radiation therapy on the area where the lump presented, and they may require chemotherapy if the lymph nodes are very large or the patient has additional risk factors.


Reviewed by Dr. Wayne Koch from the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery

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