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What is secondary lung cancer?

Secondary lung cancer is when a cancer that started somewhere else in the body has spread to the lung.

Where a cancer starts is called the primary cancer. If some cancer cells break away from the primary cancer they can move through the bloodstream or lymphatic system Open a glossary item to another part of the body, where they can form a new tumour. This is called a secondary cancer. Secondary cancers are also called metastases (pronounced met-ass-ta-sees).

Diagram showing secondary liver cancer

The secondary cancer is made of the same type of cells as the primary cancer.

If the cancer started in your bowel and has spread to your lung, the areas of cancer in the lung are made up of bowel cancer cells.  

This is different from having a cancer that first started in the lung (a primary lung cancer). In that case, the cancer is made up of lung cells that have become cancerous. This is important because the primary cancer tells your doctor which type of treatment you need.

Which cancers spread to the lungs

Any cancer can spread to the lung. The most common cancers to do so are:

  • breast cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • testicular cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • melanoma skin cancer
  • bone cancer
  • soft tissue sarcomas
  • head and neck cancer

Symptoms of secondary lung cancer

Symptoms of secondary lung cancer might include:

  • a cough that doesn’t go away
  • shortness of breath
  • ongoing chest infections
  • weight loss
  • coughing up blood
  • chest pain
Diagram showing symptoms of secondary lung cancer

A build up of fluid between the lung and chest wall (pleural effusion) stops the lungs from expanding fully. When you breathe in it can cause shortness of breath, achy chest, discomfort and heaviness.

Remember, these symptoms can also be due to other more common conditions. If you have any of them tell your doctor so that they can check them out.

Tests for secondary lung cancer

There are different tests you might have to diagnose secondary lung cancer. You may have one or more of the following:

  • chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • PET-CT scan


Secondary cancer can’t usually be cured. But treatment can control it for some time and help prevent problems developing. Some people may not be able to have treatment for their cancer because they are too unwell. 


Most people worry about their outlook (prognosis) when they have a secondary cancer. Your individual outlook depends on many factors including whether the cancer has spread to more than one part of your body, how quickly it is growing and how it responds to treatment. 

It is usually difficult to predict and this uncertainty can be hard to deal with. Speak to your doctor who can give you more information about your outlook.

Last reviewed: 
20 Mar 2020
Next review due: 
20 Mar 2023
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  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.