Health Information

Metastatic cancer to the lung

Metastatic cancer to the lung


Lung metastases

Metastatic cancer to the lung is cancer that starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the lungs.

See also: Lung cancer

I Would Like to Learn About:

  • Causes

    Metastatic tumors in the lungs are cancers that developed at other places in the body (or other parts of the lungs) and spread through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to the lungs. It is different than lung cancer that starts in the lungs.

    Common tumors that spread to the lungs include:

    • Bladder cancer
    • Breast cancer
    • Colon cancer
    • Kidney cancer
    • Neuroblastoma
    • Prostate cancer
    • Sarcoma
    • Wilm's tumor

    However, almost any cancer has the ability to spread to the lungs.

  • Symptoms

    • Bloody sputum
    • Chest pain
    • Cough
    • Shortness of breath
    • Weakness
    • Weight loss

    Note: In most cases, there are no lung-related symptoms when the tumors are found.

  • Exams and Tests

    • Bronchoscopy to view the airways 
    • Chest CT scan
    • Chest x-ray
    • Cytologic studies of pleural fluid or sputum
    • Lung needle biopsy
    • Surgery to take a sample of tissue from the lungs (surgical lung biopsy)
  • Treatment

    Chemotherapy is usually used to treat metastatic cancer to the lung. Surgery isn't always done, because usually the cancer is in other parts of the body not seen by imaging tests. Surgery to remove the tumors seen on an x-ray is not likely to be helpful. However, surgery may be an option when:

    • The first (primary) tumor has been removed
    • 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 patient must be strong enough to go through the surgery and recovery.

    Other, less common treatments include:

    • Radiation therapy
    • The placement of stents inside the airways
    • Laser therapy

    There are other experimental treatments. One of these treatments uses local heat probes to destroy the area. Another places chemotherapy medicines directly into the artery that supplies blood to the part of the lung containing the tumor.

  • Support Groups

    You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group where members share common experiences and problems. For this condition, see cancer support group.

  • Outlook (Prognosis)

    A cure is unlikely in most cases. It is rare for someone to live more than 5 years with metastatic cancer to the lungs. However, the outlook depends on the specific type of primary cancer.

    You and your family may want to start thinking about end-of-life planning, such as:

    • Palliative care
    • Hospice care
    • Advanced care directives
    • Health care agents
  • Possible Complications

    • Fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion), which can cause shortness of breath
    • Fluid between the lung and chest wall (pleural effusion), which can cause shortness of breath
    • Further spread of the cancer
    • Side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Call your health care provider if you have a history of cancer and you develop:

    • Coughing up blood
    • Persistent cough
    • Shortness of breath
    • Unexplained weight loss
  • Prevention

    Not all cancers can be prevented. However, many can be prevented by:

    • Eating a healthy diet
    • Exercising regularly
    • Limiting alcohol consumption
    • Not smoking

Related Information

  CancerBreast cancerColon cancerProstate cancerBladder cancerNeuroblastomaWilms tumorChemotherapyRadiation therapy...Lung cancer     Non-small cell lun...Breast cancerColon and rectal c...


Rusch VW. Lung metastases. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKenna WG. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier; 2008:chap 58.

Ettinger DS. Lung cancer and other pulmonary neoplasms. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 197.


Review Date: 6/5/2012  

Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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