The ‘Primary Tumor’ and the Patient’s Cancer Journey

When evaluating a patient’s particular form of cancer, physicians at Regional Cancer Care Associates often look to the primary tumor – the source where cancer originates – to glean information about the cancer, potential treatment options, and the patient’s overall health status.

The primary tumor is the first cancerous tumor that forms. In prostate cancer, the primary tumor originates from prostate tissues. In lung cancer, the primary tumor forms in lung tissues. While the cancer may grow, eventually spread (metastasize) and create new tumors inside the body, the original tumor is still identified as the primary tumor.

Assessing the Primary Tumor

Oncologists want to find out as much as possible about the primary tumor. First, they need to know exactly where it’s located, because location and orientation can reveal much about a patient’s prognosis. For example, some tumors are located too close to a vital structure (organs, glands, blood vessels, nerves, etc.) to be safely removed with surgery. Other tumors are located in a place that doctors can’t easily reach, such as deep within the brain. In these cases, doctors may forego surgery and instead turn to chemotherapy or radiation.

Second, the oncology team needs to evaluate the size of the primary tumor. Is it as small as a pea, as large as a grapefruit, or somewhere between? In most cases, the smaller the primary tumor, the better the outlook for the patient. Small tumors are typically easier to treat, which is why doctors often attempt radiation and other treatments to shrink it.

Third, doctors must determine the tumor’s genetic makeup. To do this, they’ll take a biopsy of the tumor and examine the cells under a microscope. This can help them understand the exact type or sub-type of the patient’s cancer, which then determines the best course of treatment.

Cancer Staging

Primary tumor evaluations often play a major role in cancer staging and grading. While other information is needed, such as the results from blood tests, the status of the primary tumor can indicate whether a patient’s cancer is at stage I (small, in one area), stages II or III (larger, grown into nearby tissues or lymph nodes), or stage IV (advanced, spread to other parts of the body). The stage influences which treatment options are available to a patient and can help predict outcomes.

Ongoing Evaluations

The primary tumor is evaluated immediately because doing so often leads to diagnosis. Doctors, however, will continually revisit the tumor and take new assessments over the course of treatment. They need to keep an eye on the tumor to see how it’s responding to the cancer drugs or therapies. For instance, if the tumor shrinks in size, it’s a good sign that treatment is working.

Conversely, if the tumor grows, doctors will know that the treatment plan may need to be adjusted. For the patient, this means going for regular imaging and scans before, during, and after each phase of treatment.

RCCA Is Here to Help

No matter where you are on your cancer journey, the team at Regional Cancer Care Associates is here to support you in every way possible. With state-of-the-art equipment and advanced treatment techniques – plus a long list of ongoing clinical trials – RCCA helps thousands of people throughout Connecticut, Maryland, and New Jersey. To make an appointment, please contact the office nearest you.