Cancers of Unknown Primary: A Descriptive Study in the U.S. Military Health System

Julie A. Bytnar*, Jie Lin*, Joel T. Moncur, Craig D. Shriver*, Kangmin Zhu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Introduction: Cancers of unknown primary (CUP) are defined as histologically confirmed metastatic cancers that do not have an identified primary site of origin despite an appropriate diagnostic workup. Although accessibility to and quality of medical care influence diagnosis of cancer including CUP, previous studies describing CUP have generally been conducted in patients with various accessibilities to care. This study aimed to describe the demographic, histologic, and temporal trend characteristics of CUP patients in the DoD Cancer Registry of the Military Health System (MHS), which provides universal health care access, reducing the potential effects of accessibility to care on research results. Materials and Methods: The data were obtained from the DoD's Automated Central Tumor Registry (ACTUR), which collects cancer data from beneficiaries who were diagnosed or received treatment in the MHS. We described the demographic and histologic distributions in CUP patients aged 18 years or older diagnosed from 1987 to 2013. We calculated the proportion of CUP patients among all metastatic cancers and the most common histologic categories of those tumors. We then evaluated whether the proportion of histologic types changed over time. Results: CUP comprised 13.3% of all metastatic cancers in ACTUR during the study period. The majority of CUP within ACTUR was moderately and well-differentiated adenocarcinoma (51.3%) and poorly differentiated carcinomas (23.2%) followed by squamous cell carcinomas (12.5%). The percentages of CUP among metastasized cancers of the same histologic category ranged 12%-15% for moderately and well-differentiated adenocarcinomas, squamous cell, and poorly differentiated carcinomas, and 41%-46% for malignant neuroendocrine carcinomas and undifferentiated neoplasms. However, the percentages varied by sex, race, and age for certain pathologies. The proportion of CUP patients among all metastatic cancer patients has steadily declined from 22.4% to 8.3% from 1987 to 2013. Conclusion: The proportion and trends of CUP in the ACTUR were generally consistent with other descriptive CUP studies. This study provides a description of CUP in a health care system with universal access in the USA and provides a foundation for future studies on CUP.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E516-E523
JournalMilitary Medicine
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2023
Externally publishedYes


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