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What advanced lung cancer is

Men and women discussing lung cancer

This page tells you about advanced lung cancer. There is information about

 

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What advanced lung cancer is

Your doctor may call this metastatic lung cancer. This just means that the cancer has spread from where it started in the lung. A cancer may be advanced when it is first diagnosed. Or the cancer may have come back some time after treatment (recurrent cancer).

Lung cancer can spread locally, into nearby body tissues. It may grow into an airway, into the chest wall or into the sheets of tissue that cover the lung (the pleura). Specialists regard a lung cancer as advanced if you have fluid collecting around the lung and the fluid contains cancer cells. This situation is called a pleural effusion.

A cancer that has spread to another part of the body is called a secondary cancer. The most common areas that lung cancer spreads to are the lymph nodes (in the chest, abdomen, neck or armpit), the liver, the bones and the brain. More rarely lung cancer can spread to the adrenal glands or to other areas of the body.

Symptoms of lung cancer spread

These depend on where the cancer has spread to. Cancer in the lymph nodes usually causes a swelling or lump. Cancer that has spread to the liver may cause pain under your ribs on your right side, or you may feel sick. Cancer in the bone usually shows up as bone pain. Cancer that has spread to the brain may make you drowsy and confused. Or you may have severe headaches, often with sickness.

 

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Advanced lung cancer

Your doctor may call this metastatic lung cancer. This just means that the cancer has spread from where it started in the lung. A cancer may be advanced when it is first diagnosed. Or it may come back some time after you were first treated (recurrent cancer).

Lung cancer can spread locally into nearby structures. For example, it may grow into an airway, the chest wall or the membranes that surround the lung (the pleura). You can find information about the stages of lung cancer in this section.

Specialists also regard a lung cancer as advanced if you have fluid collecting around the lung and the fluid contains cancer cells. This situation is called a pleural effusion. There is information about treating it on the treatment for advanced lung cancer page.

A cancer that has spread to another part of the body is called a secondary cancer or metastasis. Some of the lung cancer cells have travelled through the lymphatic system or bloodstream and lodged in another part of the body. The cells have then started to grow there. See the what is cancer page for information about how this happens.

 

Where lung cancer is most likely to spread to

Not all lung cancers will spread. But if the cancer does spread there are certain parts of the body that it is more likely to go to. The most common areas for lung cancer to spread to are

More rarely, it can spread to other parts of the body.

We have included the most likely symptoms of cancer spread below. People often ask us about this. But it is important to remember that these symptoms can also sometimes be caused by other things. A symptom is most likely to be caused by cancer if it lasts for a couple of weeks. Cancer symptoms don't usually come and go. Let your doctor know if you have any symptoms that last for more than a few days or are getting worse.

You can find out about treatments for lung cancer that has spread on another page in this section.

Lymph nodes

If there is cancer growing in lymph nodes, they are usually bigger than normal. If you find any lumps in your neck or armpit, do tell your doctor. Lymph nodes do also get bigger if you have an infection. So you can't be sure of the cause of a lump until your doctor has examined you and done some tests.

Liver

Cancer that has spread to the liver may cause pain in your right side, just under your ribs. Or you may feel sick, particularly after eating rich food. Or you may lose your appetite. A later symptom is often jaundice, where the whites of your eyes and your skin may look a bit yellow. Your doctor can use a blood test to check how well your liver is working. You may also have an abdominal ultrasound.

Bones

If you have cancer cells in the bone, this is most likely to show up as pain. The cancer cells weaken the bone and sometimes a fracture is the first sign. It is most likely to be diagnosed on an X-ray or after a bone scan. Treatment can help to control the pain and may strengthen the bone. You can read about this on our page about secondary cancer in the bones.

Brain

Cancer that has spread to the brain may cause any of the following symptoms

  • Drowsiness and confusion
  • Severe headaches, often with sickness
  • Weakness of an arm or leg

It is most likely to be diagnosed with a brain scan, either a CT scan or an MRI scan.

Adrenal glands

Cancer that has spread to the adrenal glands does not usually cause symptoms. The adrenal glands are hormone producing glands on top of the kidneys. But your level of adrenal hormones may get very low if both adrenal glands contain cancer cells. Low levels of these hormones may cause faintness, dizziness, weakness, tiredness and weight loss. Some people may also have stomach aches. Adrenal gland secondaries usually show up on a CT scan or ultrasound scan

Remember that you may sometimes get aches and pains that are not related to the cancer. But do check with your doctor about any symptom that worries you. Your doctor will be able to help.

 

More information about advanced lung cancer

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our lung cancer organisations page has details of people who can give information about advanced lung cancer and its treatment. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our lung cancer reading list has information about books and leaflets on lung cancer treatments.

You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse to write down the names of your treatments so that you can look them up. We have detailed information about cancer drugs in our cancer drugs section.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 31 March 2014