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Managing Cancer Care

Lung Metastases

The types of cancer that most often spread to the lungs include breast, colon, rectum, head and neck, kidney, testicular and uterine cancers as well as lymphomas. Other types of cancer can also spread to the lungs but do so less often.  

Symptoms of lung metastases

The most common symptoms of lung metastases are:

  • Coughing
  • Bringing up blood when coughing.
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fluid around the lungs
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss

Treatment of lung metastases

Treatment for lung metastases is usually based on the main type of cancer (primary site) the person has. Treatment may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiation therapy, or a combination of these.

Surgery may be an option if there are a small number of lung metastases and there are no metastases in other parts of the body. Also, surgery would only be used if the main cancer is under control.

Controlling symptoms is important, especially if treatment for the main cancer is not effective or may take a while to help. Shortness of breath can be one of the hardest feelings to deal with. Morphine-like medicines (opioids) can be used to help decrease the feeling of shortness of breath. Anti-anxiety medicines may be helpful if the morphine-like medicines don’t work.

Having trouble breathing can make you feel anxious, worried, and even like you are in a panic. Some patients find the steps below helpful.

  • Relaxation methods
  • Distraction (watching television, reading, etc.)
  • A fan blowing cool air on you

Pain can also be hard to deal with, especially if you have other symptoms. Talk to your healthcare team about how you can use medicines and supportive methods to treat your pain.

Pleural effusion (build up of fluid around the lungs) can sometimes happen when there is cancer in the lungs. The fluid can keep the lungs from filling with air and make you short of breath. If a pleural effusion causes symptoms, the usual treatment is antibiotics and draining the fluid (called a thoracentesis) using a small tube. This may need to be done more than once before the fluid stops building up. If the fluid keeps coming back, a procedure to seal the space around the lung may be tried. Or a tube that can be left in place for a longer time may be placed.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Jamil A, Kasi A. Cancer, Metastasis to the Lung. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Updated Mar 24, 2020. Accessed August 14, 2020.

Krishna R, Rudrappa M. Pleural effusion. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Updated June 7, 2020. Accessed August 14, 2020. 

Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Symptom interventions: Dyspnea., Updated August  26, 2019.  Accessed August 14, 2020.

Yonge J, Donington J. Metastatic cancer to the lung. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and  Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019: 1957-1969.

Last Revised: September 10, 2020

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