Skip to main content
URMC / Encyclopedia / Content

Lung Metastasis

There’s just no way around it. A lung metastasis is life threatening. Few patients survive more than five years after their diagnosis. The anxiety and stress that accompany this illness can often be lessened by joining a support group. The health care providers and fellow patients who participate can help make a difficult situation a bit less so.

What is a Lung Metastasis

A lung metastasis is a cancerous growth in the lung that got its start from cancer cells originating somewhere else in the body. A lung metastasis is a serious, life-threatening condition that’s difficult to treat successfully, although in certain cases the patient can gain years—and sometimes even be cured—by surgically removing the growth.

Cancer cells that spread to and take root in the lungs are said to have “metastasized” the lung. Because a lung metastasis develops from some underlying cancer elsewhere in the body, it is called a “secondary” malignancy. A lung metastasis is present in nearly one out of every three cancer patients whose illness proves fatal.

The Mechanics of a Lung Metastasis

The lungs are sensitive, soft-tissue organs that are central to many essential functions of the body. The processes of the lung are intertwined in many ways with the body’s other systems—for the transfer of oxygen, nutrients and so on. But this connection with many other systems also leaves the lungs vulnerable to illness from nearly everywhere else in the body.

So when cancer develops in another system or organ in the body, the chances are great that it eventually will find its way to the lungs. In fact, often the discovery of a lung metastasis is the first indication that the patient has cancer, and it prompts a search for the primary cancer in the body. Cancer usually travels to the lungs via the bloodstream.

Symptoms of a Lung Metastasis

A lung metastasis produces symptoms similar to those of other serious lung or chest ailments. They include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest or rib cage pain
  • Cough
  • Bloody sputum
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Weakness

It is possible, however, for a lung metastasis to present no symptoms at all. Sometimes the cancerous growth is discovered by accident when the doctor takes a chest x-ray of the patient for other reasons.

Causes of a Lung Metastasis

Common cancers that metastasize to the lungs include breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, bladder cancer, neuroblastoma, sarcoma and others. Actually, almost any cancer has the capacity to spread to the lungs and initiate a lung metastasis, although the ones mentioned are the ones found most often to be the cause.

There are rare cases in which a lung metastasis is a primary cancer. But, in something of a reversal, the growth usually doesn’t appear in the lung before it has spread to and appeared as tumors in (metastasized) other parts of the body first.

Diagnosing a Lung Metastasis

There are numerous procedures at a doctor’s disposal to develop a diagnosis. They include:

  • listening to the sound of the patient’s breathing with a stethoscope
  • taking a chest x-ray to reveal the condition of and any growths in the lungs
  • performing a CT (computed tomography) scan to obtain additional “internal” details
  • obtaining for analysis lung cells or sputum by needle or a localized biopsy surgery

Treating a Lung Metastasis

In many cases, a lung metastasis indicates that the primary cancer has spread to the patient’s bloodstream. Chances are cancer will be present in places not identified by x-rays or CT scans. That means removing visible lung metastases surgically offers no guarantee that the cancer has been fully or properly treated. As a result the treatment of choice usually is chemotherapy, along with its probability of cure.

Surgery, however, can be effective under the following group of circumstances:

  • When the primary cancer has been controlled
  • When there are only one or two clearly definable metastases
  • When there is a high probability that the surgery will “get” all of the growths
  • When the patient is strong enough to withstand a major invasive operation
  • When there’s no expectation that chemotherapy or radiation treatment would have a better chance of success

Radiation, laser therapy, and even the placement of stents inside the patient’s airway are sometimes selected as treatments. But they are much less common than chemotherapy and surgery.