What you need to know

It is recommended that you:

  • See a cancer specialist who is a member of a multidisciplinary team. You can ask your GP to refer you.
  • All specialists listed on Canrefer are members of a multidisciplinary team.

What is cancer of unknown primary?

Cancer of unknown primary (CUP) is a term used when cancer has been diagnosed but the original (or primary) place where the cancer started cannot be found. Approximately 5% of cancer diagnoses are cancers of unknown primary. In people with a cancer of unknown primary, symptoms are caused by a cancer that has spread. This is called a secondary cancer. Common places where cancer can spread include the liver, lungs and bones.

Graphic of a body with a question mark

Who do I see for diagnosis and treatment of my unknown primary cancer?

If your GP suspects you have a cancer of unknown primary, they will refer you to a specialist.

This specialist should be an active member of a multidisciplinary team. All the specialists listed on Canrefer are members of a multidisciplinary team.

Why are multidisciplinary teams important?

A multidisciplinary team is a team of doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Team members meet regularly to discuss their patients. They plan treatment for new cancer patients and review treatment for existing patients.

Multidisciplinary teams are important. Team members work together to decide the best treatments for patients.

You can ask your GP to refer you to a specialist who is part of a multidisciplinary team. Talk to your GP about this.

All specialists on Canrefer are members of a multidisciplinary team.

What tests do I need?

You may have some of the tests listed below to diagnose your cancer of unknown primary. However these tests do not always show where the primary cancer is. These tests may include:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • Urine and/or faeces tests
  • Imaging - X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI scan and/or PET scan
  • Biopsy
  • Endoscopy

What treatment will I have?

Treatment for cancer of unknown primary may include one or all types of these cancer treatments:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • targeted therapy
  • hormonal therapy
  • radiotherapy

Where will I have treatment?

If treatment for your cancer of unknown primary is specialised and complex, you may need to travel to have a part of your treatment. Your Local Health District will have an arrangement in place for this.

You may be able to have parts of your treatment closer to home. Please discuss this with your treating specialist.

Travel assistance for rural patients

If you live in a rural area and need help to travel for your treatment visit NSW Government IPTAAS for more information.

How common is cancer of unknown primary in NSW?

Cancer of unknown primary was diagnosed in:

  • 1097
    People in NSW in 2012
  • 1007
    People in NSW in 2011
  • 1033
    People in NSW in 2010

Data source: Annual NSW cancer incidence and mortality dataset, 2012 (sourced from the NSW Cancer Registry)

Cancer information and support

Speak to a specialist health professional about anything to do with cancer.

Phone 13 11 20.

Cancer Council NSW
Questions for your specialist

Find out some key questions to ask your specialist at your first appointment.

Questions you can ask
Booklet about cancer of unknown primary

Understanding Cancer of Unknown Primary is a booklet for people with cancer, their families and friends. 

Cancer Council NSW