Cancer occurs after cells are genetically altered to proliferate rapidly and indefinitely. This uncontrolled proliferation by mitosis produces a primary heterogeneic tumour. The cells which constitute the tumor eventually undergo metaplasia, followed by anaplasia then dysplasia, resulting in a malignant phenotype. This malignancy allows for invasion into the circulation, followed by invasion to a second site for tumorigenesis.
Some cancer cells known as circulating tumor cells acquire the ability to penetrate the walls of lymphatic or blood vessels, after which they are able to circulate through the bloodstream to other sites and tissues in the body. This process is known (respectively) as lymphatic or hematogenous spread. After the tumor cells come to rest at another site, they re-penetrate the vessel or walls and continue to multiply, eventually forming another clinically detectable tumor. This new tumor is known as a metastatic (or secondary) tumor. Metastasis is one of the hallmarks of cancer, distinguishing it from benign tumors. Most cancers can metastasize, although in varying degrees. Basal cell carcinoma for example rarely metastasizes.
When tumor cells metastasize, the new tumor is called a secondary or metastatic tumor, and its cells are similar to those in the original or primary tumor. This means that if breast cancer metastasizes to the lungs, the secondary tumor is made up of abnormal breast cells, not of abnormal lung cells. The tumor in the lung is then called metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer. Metastasis is a key element in cancer staging systems such as the TNM staging system, where it represents the "M". In overall stage grouping, metastasis places a cancer in Stage IV. The possibilities of curative treatment are greatly reduced, or often entirely removed, when a cancer has metastasized.
Although advanced cancer may cause pain, it is often not the first symptom.