If Cancer Spreads to the Lungs

Lung metastases is when cancers that started at other places in the body (or other parts of the lungs) spread to the lungs. They then spread through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to the lungs. It is different than lung cancer that starts in the lungs and does not change the type of cancer you have.  (If you had breast cancer that has spread to your lungs, it is now metastatic, advanced, or stage 4 breast cancer.)

Nearly any cancer can spread to the lungs. Common cancers include bladder cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, kidney cancer, melanoma, ovarian cancer, and pancreatic cancer.

Symptoms of lung metastases

The most common symptoms of lung metastases are:

  • Bringing up blood when coughing (hemoptosis)
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss


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.

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.

Treatment for lung metastases is usually based on the main type of cancer (primary site). 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.


Treatment of lung metastases often depends on the location and the source tumor cells. Treatments can include radiation, medication, interventional procedures, and surgery. A multidisciplinary treatment team approach is needed.