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Metastatic Lung Cancer

At its most advanced stage, lung cancer is metastatic – it spreads from the lungs to other organs of the body. The most common places for lung cancer to spread are the liver, the bones, and the brain. Metastatic lung cancer is a very dire condition for the patient and doctors have limited options in treating this type of cancer.

How does lung cancer start?

All cancers begin on the cellular level. The body is made up of many types of cells that grow and divide in a controlled manner to produce more cells as necessary to keep the body healthy. When cells die, they are replaced with new cells. In some cases, however, the genetic makeup of a cell can become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. When this happens, cells do not die when they should, and new cells form when they are not needed. These extra cells then form a mass of tissue called a tumor.

What causes cell damage in the lung that can lead to lung cancer?

Lung cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers because the lungs are exposed to environmental carcinogens more than most other organs of the body. Although cigarette smoking is most commonly associated with lung cancer, other things such as exposure to radon gas, asbestos or chemicals can act cumulatively to cause damage to the DNA in lung cells as well. With each additional type of exposure, the risk of developing lung cancer is increased.

What is primary lung cancer?

Cancer may begin in any organ or tissue of the body. When the original tumor begins in the lung, this is defined as a “primary lung cancer”.

What is metastatic lung cancer?

Metastasis is the spread of cancer. The cancer cells break away from the primary tumor and enter the bloodstream or the lymphatic system where they are carried to other organs where they form a new tumor. The cells in this “metastatic tumor” come from the original tumor. For example, if lung cancer spreads to the brain, the metastatic tumor in the brain is made up of cancerous lung cells as opposed to brain cells. The disease in the brain is metastatic lung cancer, not brain cancer. When viewed under a microscope, metastatic lung cancer cells generally look the same as the cancer cells in the lung.

Where does cancer spread?

Cancer cells can spread to almost any part of the body. A common site of spread is to the lymph nodes nearest the primary tumor. This is called lymph node involvement or regional disease. Cancer that spreads to other organs or to lymph nodes far from the primary tumor is called metastatic or distant disease.

How can the doctor tell whether a tumor is a primary or a metastatic tumor?

When a biopsy is performed and a tissue sample is sent to the lab, it is up to the pathologist to determine whether a cancer is primary or metastatic. Generally speaking, cancer cells look like abnormal versions of cells in the tissue where the cancer originated. Markers and antigens found in or on the cancer cells can often indicate the primary cancer site.

Metastatic cancers may be found at the same time as the original tumor, or may not appear until months, or in some cases years later. When a new tumor is found in a patient who has been previously treated for cancer, it is more likely that the new tumor is metastatic rather than another primary tumor.

Is it possible to have a metastatic tumor without having a primary tumor?

No. Metastatic tumors always start from cancer cells in another part of the body. In most cases, if a metastatic tumor is found first, the primary tumor can be found, however, in a small number of cases, the primary tumor can not be found despite lab tests, x-rays or other procedures. The pathologist is able to tell that the tumor is metastatic because the cells are not like those in the organ or tissue where the tumor was found. These primary tumors are hidden, and are defined as “cancer of unknown primary origin” (CUP).

How are metastases found?

Metastases are usually found through medical imaging techniques, although a confirmation of cancer often requires a tissue biopsy. The three most commonly used imaging tests are: x-ray or CT (Computed Tomography) scan, PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan, or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

Are there treatments for metastatic tumors?

When cancer has metastasized, the choice of treatment will take into consideration the location and size of the metastases, the age of the patient, their overall health status, and the types of treatment they have previously undergone. The goal of the treatment may be to aggressively treat the metastatic disease or only to relieve any symptoms associated with it.

Compensation information is available for those diagnosed with lung cancer. Call us toll-free at 1-800-258-1054.

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