When Cancer Spreads to the Lungs: What to Know

Cancer cells often break away from a tumor and usually die. But, unfortunately, some of the cancer cells can travel through the bloodstream or lymph system and begin tumors in new locations in the body, some far away from the original site. When this spreading happens, the cancer is said to have “metastasized.”

“When breast cancer metastasizes to the lungs, we say the woman has Stage 4 breast cancer, not lung cancer.”

Why metastasis occurs is still a puzzle. It doesn’t seem to matter if the original cancer is diagnosed at an early or more advanced stage. Also, spread may occur despite best efforts in screening and treatment. We do know metastasizing is caused by certain genetic changes in the cells that scientists are now beginning to understand. Someday, doctors may be able to tell if a person’s cancer is the type to spread to other organs by looking for these genetic changes.

Cancer frequently spreads to the lungs. That’s because the heart pumps blood from the rest of the body through the lungs’ blood vessels before sending it elsewhere, so the lungs are likely “targets” for runaway cancer cells. Other common destinations for spreading cancer are the liver, brain, bones and lymph nodes.

Keep in mind that when cancer has metastasized, the name of the cancer remains the same. For example, if breast cancer spreads to a woman’s lungs, it is treated as metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer.

“When breast cancer metastasizes to the lungs, we say the woman has Stage 4 breast cancer, not lung cancer,” confirms Thomas Heck, MD, Surgical Director at the breast center at Miami Valley Hospital North, part of Premier Health.

Some people with metastatic tumors in their lungs do not have symptoms. “Sometimes a woman with breast cancer will have a change in her breathing or an unexplained cough, but most breast cancer that has metastasized to the lungs is found on a routine chest X-ray,” says Dr. Heck.

The approach to treatment for metastatic cancer depends on a number of factors including the type of cancer, location, extent of its spread, and a person’s overall health.

Metastatic cancer in the lungs usually is treated with systemic therapy such as:When Cancer Spreads to the Lungs What to Know - In Content

In some cases, radiation therapy or surgery is used.

“For most women whose breast cancer has metastasized in the lungs, chemotherapy or hormonal therapy is recommended,” says Dr. Heck.

Small Steps: Do a Breast Self-Exam
Breast cancer happens to men as well as women. Both sexes should check their breasts for lumps periodically while in the shower.