The most common cancers that spread to the lungs are breast, bowel, kidney, melanoma and sarcoma.

What is secondary cancer in the lung?

Cancer that begins in other parts of the body can sometimes spread to the lung. This is called secondary, advanced or metastatic lung cancer.

Cancer that begins in the lung is called primary lung cancer.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous

 

Cancer cells can move through the body using the bloodstream or the lymphatic system and grow in new places. 

When cells from a primary cancer spread to other parts of your body, the cancer cells usually still look the same.  

For example, if cancer began in the breast and then spread to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung will still look like breast cancer cells. 

Sometimes secondary lung cancer is found before the primary cancer has been diagnosed. When doctors cannot find where the cancer started growing, it is called cancer of unknown primary.

Secondary lung cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of secondary lung cancer may include:

  • breathlessness
  • cough and chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • fluid on the lung

Having these symptoms does not mean you have secondary lung cancer, but it is important to get any changes checked by your doctor.

Diagnosing secondary lung cancer

If you have any secondary lung cancer symptoms, get checked by your doctor as soon as possible.

Your doctor may suggest several tests to check for any changes.

These tests may include:

X-ray

A chest x-ray (CXR) will show cancers 1cm or larger.

CT scan

A CT scan creates a 3D picture of the inside of your body. It can show smaller cancers than an x-ray and enlarged lymph nodes.

PET-CT scan

A PET-CT scan uses a radioactive dye injected into your arm that will show up in areas affected by cancer. You may have to travel for this scan. 

MRI

An MRI uses magnets and radio waves to make a detailed picture of the inside of your body.

Biopsy
A biopsy takes a small sample of the abnormal cells to check if they're cancerous.

After a diagnosis

If your test results show cancer, this can be a difficult time, and feelings can change from one moment to the next. 

Everyone reacts differently when they learn they have cancer. There is no right or wrong way to feel. 

Talk about your treatment options with your doctor, family and friends. Ask for as much information as you need. It is up to you how involved you want to be in decisions about your treatment. 

Treatment of secondary lung cancer

Secondary lung cancer treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and hormone therapy.

The treatment aims to reduce symptoms and control the cancer for as long as possible.

The choice of treatment depends on:

  • the type of primary cancer, if known
  • the treatment you have already had, if any
  • how far the cancer has spread in your body
  • your general health

Before any treatment begins, make sure that you have discussed and understood your treatment team's advice. You may ask for a second opinion if you want one.

Palliative care

Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life. It is not just about end of life care. 

Palliative care will help:

  • you to enjoy the best quality of life you can for as long as possible
  • make sure that your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs are looked after as well as possible
  • manage symptoms of your cancer
  • manage side effects of treatment
  • help you to feel in control of your situation
  • make your time as positive as it can be for you and your family/whānau

Speak with your treatment team about palliative care options for you and your family/whānau.

Using complementary or traditional healing

Sometimes people with cancer might think about using complementary therapies or traditional healing.

Some alternative, complementary and traditional healing methods may react with the treatment you receive and cause harmful side-effects.

It is important to talk to your treatment team about any other therapies you’re using or thinking about because they may interfere with hospital treatment.

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We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have nurses and counsellors to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: April 7, 2021