Lung Metastases

Updated 
April 19, 2018
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Your lungs are located in your upper body, one to each side of your heart. They help you take thousands of breaths every day. But the lungs are also one of the most common places for metastaticinfo-icon breast cancer to spread. That’s why it’s important to understand what lung mets are, what symptoms they can cause, how they’re diagnosed and how they’re treated.

What Are Lung Metastases?

Lung metastases are areas of cancer that can develop after breast cancer cells travel outside of the breasts and nearby lymphinfo-icon nodes to the lungs. Once in the lungs, the cancer cells can start multiplying, creating tumors that can affect how your lungs work. Breast cancer can spread to any part of the lungs. It’s possible to have just one tumorinfo-icon in the lungs, but most people who get lung metastases develop more than one tumor there.

Who Gets Lung Metastases?

After the bones, the lungs are the most common place for breast cancer to spread. For some people, the lungs are the first place metastaticinfo-icon breast cancer spreads. For others, the cancer spreads to the lungs after first spreading elsewhere in the body. It’s possible for any subtype of breast cancer to spread to the lungs, and for people of any background or age to develop lung metastases.

What Are the Symptoms of Lung Metastases?

People are often diagnosed with lung metastases after reporting symptoms to their doctors. These symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath, despite little physical activity
  • A stubborn, dry cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Sudden, severe chest pain

Seek help right away if you are coughing up blood. In general, a few days of shortness of breath or a few weeks of a dry cough mean you should talk to your doctor, but you know what feels right and wrong for your body. If a symptominfo-icon feels unusual or like it’s lasting too long, tell your doctor about it.

Sudden, severe shortness of breath, sudden, severe chest pain, or both could also be signs of a heart attack or a blood clot in the lungs. If you experience these symptoms, call 911 or your doctor right away.

How Are Lung Metastases Diagnosed?

You may be diagnosed with lung metastases after you report symptoms to your doctor and your doctor orders a test. Or, you may be diagnosed with lung metastases after a routine test suggests something is wrong.

Doctors use imaginginfo-icon tests to create pictures of the lungs and learn whether cancer has spread to them. CT scans or a combination of a CT scaninfo-icon and a PET scan called PET-CT are the imaging tests most often used to diagnose lung metastases. Doctors may also use chest x-rays, or, less often, MRIs.

Sometimes these tests aren’t enough to confirm a diagnosisinfo-icon of lung metastases. In that case, your doctor may recommend a bronchoscopy, in which a doctor inserts a thin, lighted tube into your nose or mouth to look at your airways. This allows your doctor to look for tumors in your lungs.

Your doctor may also recommend a biopsyinfo-icon. During a lung biopsy a surgeoninfo-icon removes a small piece of suspicious-looking lung tissueinfo-icon so it can be tested for breast cancer cells. More and more, doctors are using CT scans to guide the bronchoscopy or biopsy, which makes the process less invasive.

How Are Lung Metastases Treated?

Lung metastases are typically treated with systemicinfo-icon treatments like chemotherapyinfo-icon and targeted therapies. Your doctor will schedule regular imaginginfo-icon tests of your lungs to see how well those treatments are working. If the tests show the cancer is growing or spreading, your doctor will assign you to a new type of systemic therapyinfo-icon.

You may also receive treatment for symptoms caused by lung metastases.

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