Lung metastases are cancerous tumors that start somewhere else in the body and spread to the lungs.
Metastatic tumors in the lungs are cancers that developed at other places in the body (or other parts of the lungs). They then spread through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to the lungs. It is different than lung cancer that starts in the lungs.
Lung cancer - Animation
Cancer can affect just about any part of the body, from the colon to the pancreas. Some cancers grow quickly, while others grow more slowly and are easier to treat. But of all the different cancers out there, one of the deadliest is lung cancer. Let's talk today about lung cancer. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow uncontrollably and form tumors. In the case of lung cancer, the tumors start in the lungs. Sometimes cancer starts somewhere else in the body and then spreads to the lungs. In that case, it's called metastatic cancer to the lung. Metastatic means disease that has spread. There are two types of lung cancer. The most common, and slower-growing form is non-small cell lung cancer. The other, faster-growing form is called small cell lung cancer. The most common way to get lung cancer is to smoke cigarettes. The more cigarettes you smoke and the earlier you start smoking, the greater your risk is. Even being around someone who smokes and breathing in the secondhand smoke from their cigarettes increases your risk of getting lung cancer. Even though smoking makes you much more likely to get lung cancer, you don't have to smoke or be exposed to smoke to get the disease. Some people who have lung cancer never lit up a cigarette in their life. They have been exposed to cancer-causing substances like asbestos, diesel fumes, arsenic, radiation, or radon gas. Or, they may not have had any known lung cancer risks. The most common signs of lung cancer are a cough that won't go away, chest pain, shortness of breath, weight loss, and fatigue. But just because you have these symptoms it doesn't mean that you have don't have lung cancer. These can also be signs of other conditions, like asthma or a respiratory infection. If you do have these symptoms, see your doctor. A chest x-ray, MRI, or CT scan can view the inside of your lungs to look for signs of cancer or other diseases. What happens if you do have lung cancer? Doctors divide lung cancer into stages. The higher the stage, the more the cancer has spread. For example, a stage 1 cancer is small and hasn't spread outside of the lungs. A stage 4 cancer has spread to the other organs, such as the kidneys or brain. Depending upon the type and stage of your lung cancer, you may need surgery to remove part or all of your lung. Or, your doctor may recommend radiation or chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. If you have lung cancer, how well you do depends upon the stage of your disease and the type of lung cancer that you have. Early-stage cancers have the highest survival and cure rates. Late-stage cancers are harder to treat. Because lung cancer can be so deadly, prevention is key. The most important that thing you can do is to stop smoking, and avoid being around anyone who does smoke.
Nearly any cancer can spread to the lungs. Common cancers include:
Symptoms may include any of the following:
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will examine you and ask about your medical history and symptoms. Tests that may be done include:
Chemotherapy is used to treat metastatic cancer to the lung. Surgery to remove the tumors may be done when any of the following occurs:
- The cancer has spread to only limited areas of the lung
- The lung tumors can be completely removed with surgery
However, the main tumor must be curable, and the person must be strong enough to go through the surgery and recovery.
Other treatments include:
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group where members share common experiences and problems.
A cure is unlikely in most cases of cancers that have spread to the lungs. But the outlook depends on the main cancer. In rare cases, a person can live more than 5 years with metastatic cancer to the lungs.
You and your family may want to start thinking about end-of-life planning, such as:
Complications of metastatic tumors in the lungs may include:
- Fluid between the lung and chest wall (pleural effusion), which can cause shortness of breath or pain when taking a deep breath
- Further spread of the cancer
- Side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you have a history of cancer and you develop:
- Coughing up blood
- Persistent cough
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weight loss
Not all cancers can be prevented. However, many can be prevented by:
- Eating healthy foods
- Exercising regularly
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Not smoking
Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
Arenberg DA, Pickens A. Metastatic malignant tumors. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 55.
Hayman J, Naidoo J, Ettinger DS. Lung Metastases. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 57.
Putnam JB. Lung, chest wall, pleura, and mediastinum. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 57.