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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 cells break away from the primary cancer they can move through the bloodstream or lymph system 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).

Secondary liver cancer.jpg

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

If your 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

Symptoms of secondary lung cancer

Symptoms of secondary lung cancer:

  • a cough that doesn’t go away
  • shortness of breath
  • ongoing chest infections
  • weight loss
  • coughing up blood
  • a build up of fluid between the chest wall and the lung (a pleural effusion)
Diagram showing symptoms of secondary lung cancer

A build up of fluid stops the lungs from expanding fully when you breathe in causing shortness of breath, chest aching, 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

You may have one or more of the following tests:

  • chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
Last reviewed: 
18 Oct 2017
  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine
    N.Cherny and others
    5th edition (2015)

  • Cancer and its management
    Tobias and Hochhauser
    7th edition (2015)

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