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Treatment Options for Carcinoma of Unknown Primary

For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.

Newly Diagnosed Carcinoma of Unknown Primary

Cervical (Neck) Lymph Nodes

Cancer found in cervical (neck) lymph nodes may have spread from a tumor in the head or neck. Treatment of cervical lymph node carcinoma of unknown primary (CUP) may include the following:

  • Surgery to remove the tonsils.
  • Radiation therapy alone. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) may be used.
  • Radiation therapy followed by surgery to remove the lymph nodes.
  • Surgery to remove the lymph nodes, with or without radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of new types of treatment.

See the PDQ summary on Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary Treatment (Adult) for more information.

Poorly Differentiated Carcinomas

Cancer cells that are poorly differentiated look very different from normal cells. The type of cell they came from is not known. Treatment of poorly differentiated carcinoma of unknown primary, including tumors in the neuroendocrine system (the part of the brain that controls hormone-producing glands throughout the body) may include the following:

  • Combination chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of new types of treatment.

Women with Peritoneal Cancer

Treatment for women who have peritoneal (lining of the abdomen) carcinoma of unknown primary may be the same as for ovarian cancer. Treatment may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of new types of treatment.

See the PDQ summary on Ovarian Epithelial, Fallopian Tube, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer Treatment for more information.

Isolated Axillary Lymph Node Metastasis

Cancer found only in the axillary (armpit) lymph nodes may have spread from a tumor in the breast.

Treatment of axillary lymph node metastasis is usually:

  • Surgery to remove the lymph nodes.

Treatment also may include one or more of the following:

  • Surgery to remove the breast.
  • Radiation therapy to the breast.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of new types of treatment.

Inguinal Lymph Node Metastasis

Cancer found only in the inguinal (groin) lymph nodes most likely began in the genital, anal, or rectal area. Treatment of inguinal lymph node metastasis may include the following:

  • Surgery to remove the cancer and/or lymph nodes in the groin.
  • Surgery to remove the cancer and/or lymph nodes in the groin, followed by radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Melanoma in a Single Lymph Node Area

Treatment of melanoma that is found only in a single lymph node area is usually:

  • Surgery to remove the lymph nodes.

See PDQ summary on Melanoma Treatment for more information.

Multiple Involvement

There is no standard treatment for carcinoma of unknown primary that is found in several different areas of the body. Treatment may include the following:

  • Hormone therapy.
  • Internal radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy with one or more anticancer drugs.
  • A clinical trial.

Recurrent Carcinoma of Unknown Primary

Treatment for recurrent carcinoma of unknown primary is usually within a clinical trial. Treatment depends on the following:

  • The type of cancer.
  • How the cancer was treated before.
  • Where the cancer has come back in the body.
  • The condition and wishes of the patient.

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Navigating Care disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information. This information was sourced and adapted from Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries on www.cancer.gov.

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