Question: My mom had breast cancer years ago. During her yearly checkup, one of her blood levels came back abnormal. Her doctor ordered a CT scan and a bone scan, which came back showing cancer in her bones. Does she have bone cancer? How long can she live with this?

Answer: A person who has had a diagnosis of cancer at a specific site, such as the breast, has breast cancer. If that cancer comes back in organs or sites that are distant from the original location of the cancer, the person then has what is called metastatic cancer. The word metastasis comes from the Greek word meaning displacement — meta meaning “next” and stasis meaning “placement.” The original cancer cells have traveled through the blood stream and deposited into the “next placement,” the bone or other sites.

When reviewing the two most common cancers, breast cancer and prostate cancer, studies show that those patients with metastasis only to the bone can live a long time; some can even live decades. Patients with bone metastasis may or may not experience pain. However, radiation is of benefit regardless. Radiation therapy can be used to help relieve the pain symptoms of bone metastasis but also to aid in preventing the tumor from growing further.

Other cancers, such as lung cancer, stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer can spread to the bones; but they usually spread to other organs, for instance, the liver. When this happens, patients do not usually do well and are often told they have six months or less to live. When given this type of diagnosis, the doctor may recommend hospice care. Hospice care is specialized care for people with a life-limiting prognosis. Hospice can help with pain management and symptom control so that a person may live the last days of life fully, with dignity and comfort, at home or in a home-like setting.

Dr. Kris Gast is a board certified radiation oncologist. She has been in practice for 27 years, the last 20 at Fort Smith Radiation Oncology in Fort Smith. Her column Cancer Demystified appears the third Friday each month in the Times Record. Send questions to