While Stage 4 cancer can be terminal, stage 4 cancer isn’t always terminal. 

Different types of cancer have different treatment options, life expectancies, and survival rates. Depending on the type of cancer you’re dealing with, there are options.

In this article, you’ll learn about common types of Stage 4 cancer and their treatment options, life expectancies, and average survival rates. You’ll also be introduced to options for support and resources for financial assistance

Note:  If you have been diagnosed with cancer, have a current life insurance policy, and want immediate cash —you may be eligible for a viatical settlement, where you sell your life insurance policy for a cash payment. Learn more and see if you qualify by visiting us here.

What is Stage 4 Cancer?

Cancer patient woman chemotherapy asking "Is stage 4 cancer is terminal?"

Stage 4 is the final stage on the cancer diagnostic scale, and indicates an advanced stage cancer diagnosis. This stage of cancer is considered advanced because it means that the cancer has progressed and spread from its initial site, into other areas or organs of the body. Because Stage 4 cancer is the most advanced form of the illness, the outlook, or prognosis, is generally not positive.

However, while Stage 4 cancer can often be terminal, it is not always terminal; and even when it is terminal, patients can still end up living much longer than expected.

Metastatic Cancer

Metastatic cancer is another common name for Stage 4 cancer. More specifically, ‘metastatic’ refers to the process of ‘metastasis’, by which the cancer spreads from its primary site, to a distant secondary area of the body. 

Solid Tumors vs. Liquid

Cancer can occur in one of two different forms: solid tumors or liquid cancers.

When a cancer forms a solid mass, or tumor—it is referred to as a ‘solid tumor’ cancer. In this type of cancer, tumorous masses form in a specific bodily organ, such as the breasts, lungs, or ovaries—for example. Solid tumors can occur anywhere in the body.

On the other hand, ‘liquid cancers’, or ‘liquid tumors’, refer to those that specifically affect the blood, bone marrow, or lymph nodes of the body only. Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Myeloma are examples of liquid cancers.

The Cancer Stages

Like many other life-threatening illnesses, cancer is diagnosed in stages. Generally, stages are calculated on a scale from 0-4, and have to do with factors including: the size of the cancer, how far it has spread, and where in the body it is located. However, there are several other common systems and ways that cancer stages are diagnosed.

TNM staging system

One of the most common cancer staging systems is the TNM system. In the acronym, “T” stands for “tumor”, and describes the features of the primary tumor. “N” is for “nodes” and explains whether or not the cancer has spread into the patient’s lymph nodes. Finally, “M” is for “metastasized”, and indicates whether or not the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

Binet and Rai systems

Binet and Rai are the staging systems used to specifically diagnose Chronic LymphocyticLeukemia (CLL), a non-tumorous cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Both of these systems use the patient’s white blood cell count to determine how far their cancer may have spread and what areas of the body are being affected. 

Cancer Grading 

Cancer grading is the process of describing the appearance of cancer cells under a microscope. The grading system has three categories. Grade 1 is assigned to cancer cells that look more normal and are growing at a slower pace. Grade 2 indicates that the cancer cells look different from normal cells and are growing at a faster rate. Grade 3 indicates that the cancer cells look even more abnormal and may be spreading or growing more aggressively than Grade 2.

Testing & Biopsy

Testing and biopsy are some of the more general ways of determining the potential stage of a cancer. Testing can provide information about where in the body the cancer is located, and can include any of the following tests: CT scans, X-rays, ultrasounds, MRIs, and PET scans. Biopsy is the process whereby the doctor will remove a small portion of an identified tumor, and have it tested in a lab to determine whether or not it’s cancerous.

Stage 4 Cancer Treatment Options

Female cancer patient listening to doctor talk about if stage 4 cancer is curable

When it comes to treating Stage 4 cancer, there are a few different commonly used methods, which we will examine below.

Please keep in mind that whether or not an individual is a candidate for the following treatment options depends upon certain variables— so it is always best to consult your doctor directly to find out which treatment option is most appropriate for you.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that cancer patients can agree to take part in. The purpose of a clinical trial is to utilize a specific treatment approach, in combination with some type of new approach, such as a new type of medication or new combination of medications. Sometimes clinical trials even attempt to use an already established treatment method in a new way, with the hope of achieving better results over time. 

Clinical trials can allow patients access to new and innovative cancer treatments that may end up being successful for them. 

Systemic & Common Drug Treatments (Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy)

Chemotherapy is the process by which anti-cancer drugs are used as a method of cancer treatment. Because the process of chemotherapy is aimed at destroying cancer cells, it has been shown to effectively cure cancer in some people. While chemotherapy may not be completely effective in curing Stage 4 cancer, it does offer the benefit of easing and relieving some of the symptoms of it—which is certainly a step in the right direction.

Additionally, immunotherapy refers to the process by which a patient’s own immune system is stimulated, in an effort to encourage the body to fight off the cancer. One common form of immunotherapy treatment utilizes various drugs, known as ‘checkpoint inhibitors’, to encourage the immune system to identify and attack cancer cells on its own. There are many forms of immunotherapy, so it’s best to consult with your doctor to learn more.

Surgery

Surgery is commonly used to treat cancer caused by solid tumors specifically, that are contained to one area. Like we mentioned earlier, cancer is considered Stage 4 when it has spread to more than one area of the body.  For this reason, using surgery to treat Stage 4 cancer is uncommon—but it does happen, occasionally

Surgery is often deemed appropriate for Stage 4 cancer only if the original cancerous tumor is not large in size, and/or the tumors that have spread are small in both size and number. When this is the case, surgery may be possible. 

Radiation

Radiation therapy is a form of cancer treatment that uses radiation technology to shrink cancerous tumors. Essentially, high levels of radiation have the ability to kill off cancer cells by slowing their growth and effectively damaging them over time. Radiation therapy has been shown to effectively cure cancer in some, but it is not always 100 percent effective for everyone. However, even when radiation does not cure one’s cancer, it still has the potential to reduce its size. 

Types of Stage 4 Cancers and Their Treatment Practices

Stage 4 Lung Cancer and Treatments

Stage 4 lung cancer is diagnosed when it is determined that the cancer has spread— either from one lung to the second lung, or from the lungs to another part of the body. The most common organs stage 4 lung cancer spreads to are the liver, brain, bones, or adrenal glands.

Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer is usually inoperable, so the most common treatment methods tend to be targeted drug therapies, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy.

For stage 4 small cell lung cancer, chemotherapy and immunotherapy are most commonly used to treat symptoms, while shrinking the cancer. 

Learn about how to get financial help for lung cancer

Stage 4 Prostate Cancer and Treatments

A stage 4 prostate cancer diagnosis means that the cancer has spread beyond the prostate, usually to either the adrenal glands, bones, lungs, or liver.  

Treatment for stage 4 prostate cancer can involve removing the prostate and providing hormone therapy. Hormone blocking therapy reduces the amount of testosterone in the body, in order to help slow the growth of the cancer or shrink it. This type of hormone therapy is sometimes used alongside testicle removal, on a case by case basis. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are also occasionally used.

Financial Help for Prostate Cancer Patients

Stage 4 Colorectal Cancer and Treatments

Stage 4 colorectal cancer indicates that the cancer has spread from the colon and/or rectal area, to a more distant area of the body— usually the lungs, liver, or bones.

Treating stage 4 colorectal cancer can include surgery to remove the original tumor and any small tumors that may have spread. A partial Colectomy or full Ostomy procedure may also be necessary, and lymph node removal is a possibility. For tumors that are too large and/or have spread to too many different areas, chemotherapy and targeted drug therapies are the main methods of treatment.

Financial Help for Colon and Colorectal Cancer Patients

Stage 4 Breast Cancer and Treatments

Stage 4—also known as metastatic breast cancer, is diagnosed when it is realized that the cancer has spread beyond the breast and its immediate surrounding areas, to other, distant areas of the body. The most common organs stage 4 breast cancer spreads to are the lungs, liver, brain, or bones. 

When it comes to stage 4 breast cancer, systemic drug therapies are the main method of treatment. These can include any combination of chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted drug therapy. In some situations, radiation and/or surgery may also be possible.

Financial Help for Breast Cancer Patients

Stage 4 Cancer Survival Rate and Life Expectancy

Survival Rates 

Generally, survival rates for Stage 4 cancer depend upon a few different variables, including the type of cancer and its grade, as well as the patient’s age and overall health.

Survival Rate List

Below, you’ll see our convenient Survival Rate Chart, which offers further insight into the specifics when it comes to the survival rates of different cancer types

Stage 4 Cancer Average 5 Year Survival Rate According to the American Cancer Society:

  • Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer: 7%
  • Small-Cell Lung Cancer: 3%
  • Prostate Cancer: 30%
  • Colorectal: 14%
  • Breast Cancer: 28%

Stage 4 Patients Can Live For Years

The 5 year survival rates listed in the chart above are NOT intended to scare you, but rather to inform you of the average, approximate rates for each type of cancer we have explored in this article. The fact is, Stage 4 cancer patients can live for YEARS, and these statistics are just that, statistics. They do not define your experience and do not mean that you cannot beat cancer and thrive!

Finding Support

Navigating a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis can be scary. But the good news is that help is always available, and you are not alone! 

Counseling

Many cancer patients benefit from sharing their emotional experiences with a counselor. A counselor can help patients’ learn effective ways of managing feelings of depression and anxiety, and can offer healthy coping methods.

There are many different forms of counseling available with various types of professionals, including: therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, oncology workers, counselors, etc—meaning, your options are certainly not limited when it comes to finding the right kind of professional to best serve you.

Cancer Care Team / Pain Clinics

If you’re looking for support during this time, working with your oncologist and cancer care team can be helpful. Many teams include a ‘patient navigator’ who is assigned to guide you through the different stages of your diagnosis and connect you to helpful resources that can assist you.

Pain clinics, or palliative care, is another option. Your palliative care team is there to support you by treating and preventing the painful and uncomfortable side effects that can result from certain forms of cancer treatment.

Support Groups

Cancer support groups offer a safe space for people battling cancer to come together and share their emotions and experiences of living with cancer. For many, these support groups serve as a community and social support system, and can, therefore, be a wonderful resource for those coming to terms with their cancer diagnosis.

Financial Assistance

We know that affording Stage 4 cancer treatment can be a stressful and emotional experience, which is why, here at American Life Fund, we work to help cancer patients financially. If you have been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, have a current life insurance policy, and are in need of immediate cash to pay for treatment—you may be eligible for a viatical settlement. Learn more and see if you qualify by visiting us here.

Also, take a look at some of our articles on how to find financial assistance and free money for cancer patients:

Further Reading

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