What Does Stage 4 Cancer Mean?

Your friend or loved one has cancer, and it is "Stage 4", but what does that mean?

Maybe they are even closer to you than a friend. Although cancer is generally understood by a large part of the population, there are still parts about cancer and the stages that accompany it that many just don’t understand. There are no more stages after Stage 4, and the patient could be in a much different place in their mind during this stage. Read on to find out what stage 4 cancer means for the cancer patient and for their loved ones, and how to be there for the cancer patient during this very serious time.

Understanding the 4 stages of cancer:

To truly understand what a stage 4 patient is going through, it’s important to understand the 4 stages of cancer. Here’s a short overview of what each stage means:

Stage 1 - The cancer is small and contained where it started.

Stage 2 - The cancer tumor is larger, and could have possibly spread into or close to lymph nodes near the tumor.

Stage 3 - The cancer is larger, could have spread into surrounding tissues, and there are cancer cells in the lymph nodes in the area.

Stage 4 - The cancer is not only larger but has spread to another body organ. When cancer spreads to even one other organ, it is in stage 4 and is called metastatic cancer.

So the cancer has spread. What does this mean for the patient?

When cancer spreads and the doctor deems the patient’s cancer to be stage 4, it means the likelihood for survival has decreased a lot. The percentages of survival rate are lower, the patient becomes weaker, and sometimes very serious decisions need to be made in the hopes of survival and remission. Here are some common stage 4 cancer symptoms in some of the more common types of cancer:

Breast cancer: Weakness, numbness, dry cough, chest pain, swelling of the arms, loss of appetite, bloating, constant nausea, severe headaches, vision problems, seizures, confusion, loss of balance.

Lung cancer: Excessive coughing, coughing up blood, chest pain, hoarseness, weight loss, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, feeling tired and weak.

Prostate cancer: Painful urination, bloody urination, bone pain, swelling in the legs, fatigue.

Colorectal cancer: Blood in the stool, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, weakness, abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss, nausea, and vomiting.

Bladder cancer: Painful urination, tired and weak feeling, inability to urinate, lower back pain, weight loss, swollen feet, bone pain.

Kidney cancer: Blood in the urine, lump or mass in kidney area, pain in the side, tiredness, not feeling well, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, bone pain.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: Fatigue, night sweats, rever, weight loss, itching, bone pain, loss of appetite, abdominal pain.

What are the side-effects?

As you can see, stage 4 can be a very difficult and painful stage no matter what type of cancer a patient has. The most common side-effects in all of these cancers are feeling weak, loss of appetite, feeling tired, excessive pain, and weight loss. Here’s how to be helpful to the cancer patient who has these symptoms:

Feeling Weak And Tired: Your friend or loved one is going to feel extremely weak and will most of the time be too tired to do much of anything. Don’t expect the patient to do much more than lay in bed or sit on the couch. If you want to be there for your loved one, try doing things that require little to no effort for the patient. Watching TV or a movie, talking, listening to music, and other activities that require little to no movement are great ideas.

Loss Of Appetite: The stage 4 cancer patient won’t want to eat. However, it is important that they do eat, so at this point in the patient’s cancer, focus less on giving them specialized meals of healing, and more on whatever it is they feel like eating. If they want ice cream, give them ice cream. Think of every bit of having an appetite as a success, and it’s important that when they say they are hungry for something specific that you make sure they eat what they want.

Excessive Pain: Simply getting out of bed in the morning will be a daunting task for the stage 4 cancer patient. Many patients in stage 4 are said to feel pain everywhere, all the time. They will have headaches, bone pain, and excessive pain in the area of their tumor including the areas around the tumor and where their cancer has metastasized to. Take things slowly with your friend or loved one, and don’t expect them to talk much or move at all. It hurts them just to speak even if they want to, so be gentle, caring and patient with them.

Weight Loss: Because of the patient’s loss of appetite, they will begin to lose a lot of weight. Don’t make comments about how skinny or unhealthy they look. They know exactly how they look, and if they could eat, they would. This weight loss will also contribute to the patient feeling tired and weak, so take it easy when visiting your loved one.

Besides these common side-effects, something very important to realize is that they are at a critical stage of cancer where the patient and their doctors must make major decisions, one of the biggest being whether or not they want to continue fighting it.

When cancer spreads, decisions need to be made about increased chemotherapy treatments, alternative treatments, and major surgeries. 

How you can help

Stage 4 is the toughest time for the patient and their friends and loved ones, so here are some tips for keeping the patient comfortable during this time.

Don’t be overly positive. The cancer patient may have already given up hope. You don’t know about every conversation they have had with their team of doctors, and they could already be at the point of no return. Avoid saying things like, “You still got this,” and, “You can still beat this,” and “Keep fighting.” Instead, allow the patient to open up first, and above all, listen.

Expect and respect major decisions. You must expect major decisions to be made by the cancer patient, and you must respect their decisions. At stage 4, they’ve had a lot of time to think about the decisions they would make at this point, and they’ve had many conversations with their doctors by this point in time. If they make a big decision, don’t go against it. Let them give you their thoughts and reason for making the decision, and above all, respect their decision.

Continue to care, and continue to be present. No matter what decision is made by the stage 4 cancer patient, you must continue to care about and care for your loved one. They might not be the most positive, and they might not ask you to do things with them. They may even tell you they don’t want you around. It’s important that you don’t run away or hide from your friend or loved one. Continue to be there for them, even if that means calling them, sending them a text, giving them cards or notes. No matter how the patient looks or feels, you must show them that you still care for them and that you are still here for them.

About the Author

When my best friend was diagnosed with Cancer, I wanted to give her a care package to let her know I was thinking of her. I was just guessing at what to include and I learned a lot about what can be both useful and meaningful to someone walking their cancer journey. My own frustration led me to start Help Them Fight to create a resource for others going through the same situation.