Cancer of unknown primary: A population-based analysis of temporal change and socioeconomic disparities

D. Urban, A. Rao, M. Bressel, Y. R. Lawrence, L. Mileshkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background:Cancer of unknown primary (CUP) is the fourth most common cause of cancer death. With advanced diagnostics and treatments, we investigated the proportion of cancers diagnosed as CUP, treatment outcomes and association with socioeconomic disparities.Methods:We analysed trends in CUP diagnosis and outcome within the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results registry between 1973 and 2008.Results:The percentage of all cancers diagnosed as CUP has decreased over time comprising <2% of cancers since 2007. A higher proportion of CUP was diagnosed in the elderly, females, blacks and residents of less affluent or less educated counties. Median survival of all CUP patients was 3 months, with no improvement over time. The 5-year survival significantly improved in those with squamous histology (squamous cell carcinoma; SCC) but only marginally in non-SCC. Factors associated with a longer survival on multivariate analysis included white race; female; <65 years old; most recent decade at diagnosis; SCC; married; a histological diagnosis; and treatment with radiotherapy (all P<0.001). Despite the improvement in survival with radiotherapy, its use was less frequent in females and blacks.Conclusion:The percentage of cancers diagnosed as CUP is decreasing but prognosis remains poor, particularly in non-SCC CUP. However, significant socioeconomic disparities exist in diagnosis and survival, suggesting inequalities in access to diagnostic investigations and treatment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1318-1324
Number of pages7
JournalBritish Journal of Cancer
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • neoplasms; unknown primary; epidemiology; health status disparities; SEER program; trends


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