Metastatic Cancer to the Lungs

Metastatic Cancer to the Lungs

diagram of cancer cells dividing
Understanding lung metastases from other cancers.

Metastatic cancer to the lungs refers to the spread of a cancer from another region of the body to the lungs. This is also referred to as secondary cancer in the lungs

The place where cancer begins is called the primary cancer. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the lungs, it would be called breast cancer with metastasis (spread) to the lungs. In this case, breast cancer would be considered the “primary” cancer.

If you look at the cancer cells in the lungs, in this case, they would appear to be cancerous breast cancer cells, not lung cells.

For information on metastatic lung cancer (cancer that begins in the lungs and spreads to another region of the body), see Stage 4 (Metastatic) Lung Cancer and Where Does Lung Cancer Spread.

Cancers That May Spread to the Lungs

Almost any cancer can spread to the lungs. The most common types of cancer that metastasize to the lungs include:

Occasionally, physicians are unable to determine where the primary site of a cancer lies. In this case, they refer to the cancer as an unknown primary or cancer of unknown origin with metastasis to the lungs.

Symptoms of Cancer That Has Spread to the Lungs

Sometimes lung metastases are present but do not cause any symptoms.

When this is the case, the metastases may be found on a radiological exam done to look for the presence of the spread of cancer. Symptoms of cancer metastatic to the lungs, when present, are often similar to symptoms of primary lung cancer and can include:

With metastatic lung cancer, patients often have symptoms related to the primary cancer in addition to lung symptoms. Since metastatic cancer implies that the primary cancer has spread through the body, general symptoms such as fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and decreased appetite are common as well.


If your doctor suspects that you have lung metastases, there are several tests she may consider.  These include:

  • A chest x-ray
  • CT scan of the chest
  • PET scan 
  • Lung biopsy (either a needle biopsy or open lung biopsy)
  • Analysis of pleural fluid if a pleural effusion is present
  • Bronchoscopy


Treatment for cancer metastatic to the lungs is usually determined by the primary cancer, or origin of the cancer. These treatments may include hormonal therapy, targeted therapies, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or a combination of treatments.

Chemotherapy is often the treatment of choice, and is given as palliative therapy – therapy to prolong survival and decrease symptoms.

In rare instances, particularly with testicular cancer metastatic to the lungs, chemotherapy may be curative.

Occasionally, surgical treatment of lung metastases may be considered. In order for this to be effective, your doctor will want to make sure that your primary tumor is completely removed, that there are only a few (oligometastases) metastases in the lung, and that surgery will be able to completely remove these metastases.

In addition to surgery, stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT), also referred to by terms such as "cyberknife," is sometimes used to treat metastases to the lungs from cancer in other organs.

Prognosis of Cancer with Lung Metastases

Unfortunately, cancer that has spread to the lungs—by definition stage IV cancer—is usually not curable, and life expectancy is usually fairly short. That said, metastatic is often treatable, and your doctor will talk with you about treatments that may lengthen your life as well as give you the best quality of life possible.

It's likely that the prognosis for cancer with lung metastases will improve in the near future. Already some stage 4 cancers have responded to treatments such as immunotherapy in ways that were unheard of only a few years ago.


University of Rochester Medical Center. Lung Metastasis. Accessed 02/14/16.

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