Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Comparison of survival of patients with metastases from known versus unknown primaries: survival in metastatic cancer

Matias Riihimäki12, Hauke Thomsen1, Akseli Hemminki3, Kristina Sundquist24 and Kari Hemminki12*

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Molecular Genetic Epidemiology, German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ), 69120, Heidelberg, Germany

2 Center for Primary Health Care Research, Lund University, Malmö, Sweden

3 Cancer Gene Therapy Group, Molecular Cancer Biology Program & Transplantation Laboratory & Haartman Institute, University of Helsinki, 00290, Helsinki, Finland

4 Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University School of Medicine, California, CA, USA

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BMC Cancer 2013, 13:36  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-13-36

Published: 28 January 2013



Cancer of unknown primary site (CUP) is considered an aggressive metastatic disease but whether the prognosis differs from metastatic cancers of known primary site is not known. Such data may give insight into the biology of CUP and the metastatic process in general.


6,745 cancer patients, with primary metastatic cancer at diagnosis, were identified from the Swedish Cancer Registry, and were compared with 2,881 patients with CUP. Patients were diagnosed and died between 2002 and 2008. The influence of the primary site, known or unknown, on survival in patients with metastases at specific locations was investigated. Hazard ratios (HRs) of death were estimated for several sites of metastasis, where patients with known primary sites were compared with CUP patients.


Overall, patients with metastatic cancers with known primary sites had decreased hazards of death compared to CUP patients (HR = 0.69 [95% CI = 0.66–0.72]). The exceptions were cancer of the pancreas (1.71 [1.54–1.90]), liver (1.58 [1.36–1.85]), and stomach (1.16 [1.02–1.31]). For individual metastatic sites, patients with liver or bone metastases of known origin had better survival than those with CUP of the liver and bone. Patients with liver metastases of pancreatic origin had an increased risk of death compared with patients with CUP of the liver (1.25 [1.06–1.46]). The median survival time of CUP patients was three months.


Patients with CUP have poorer survival than patients with known primaries, except those with brain and respiratory system metastases. Of CUP sites, liver metastases had the worst prognosis. Survival in CUP was comparable to that in metastatic lung cancer. The aggressive behavior of CUP may be due to initial immunosuppression and immunoediting which may allow accumulation of mutations. Upon escape from the suppressed state an unstoppable tumor spread ensues. These novel data on the epidemiology of the metastatic process at the population level demonstrated large survival differences in organ defined metastases depending on the original cancer.

Metastasis; Cancer survival; Regression analysis; Cancer of unknown primary; CUP