Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that starts in glandular cells that line organs such as the colon, breasts, esophagus or lungs. Sometimes, cancer cells break off from a tumor and travel through the blood or lymph system to other parts of the body, where they can grow. This process is called metastasis. When adenocarcinoma spreads from the lungs, it is most commonly referred to as mesothelioma rather than metastatic adenocarcinoma. The five-year survival rate for metastatic adenocarcinoma depends on the part of the body in which the disease has spread, the number of tumors and the stage of the cancer.
A specialized medical test called a biopsy can reveal whether a patient has an adenocarcinoma that has spread. A doctor removes a sample of tissue from the area where the cancer is suspected, and a pathologist examines it under a microscope. If the results indicate that the cancer has spread, doctors use a staging system to determine how far the disease has progressed.
The earliest stages of adenocarcinoma that have not spread usually produce few symptoms, though they may cause discomfort as they grow and press on other tissues. Some patients experience general fatigue and unexplained weight loss as the adenocarcinoma spreads. For adenocarcinoma that spreads to the esophagus, symptoms include difficulty swallowing and persistent coughing. For lung adenocarcinoma, the symptoms vary by where the cancer has spread. Adenocarcinoma that spreads from the lungs can cause shortness of breath, pain in the chest or ribs and coughing up blood.
In addition to a physical examination, doctors order a variety of lab tests to measure the function of organs and check levels of blood cells. They also look for a protein called carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), which is elevated in the stomach and intestines and can help predict the possibility of an adenocarcinoma. In addition, they often order a CT scan and an MRI to see inside the body. MRI and CT scans use radio waves and magnets to create detailed pictures of internal structures. They can detect damage to the spinal cord, identify if a tumor has reached the brain and detect whether or not it has spread.
Depending on the stage of the adenocarcinoma and its location in the body, different treatments are used to extend life expectancy and reduce symptoms. Treatments may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or targeted therapies. It’s important to find a multidisciplinary care team that has experience treating your specific cancer, because they are more likely to be familiar with the latest treatments and clinical trials.
Besides the physical effects of cancer, many patients experience emotional stress and anxiety. Finding a support group for people with similar conditions can help. Many online groups exist for advanced adenocarcinoma, and your cancer center may be able to refer you to in-person support groups in your area. In addition, a palliative care team can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life. This can include medication to control nausea, pain and other symptoms, as well as counseling to deal with grief and stress.