are aware that lung cancer can be treated more successfully the earlier it is diagnosed. Unfortunately, four in ten cases have already spread to other areas of the body by the time the disease is detected. One of the reasons this happens so frequently is because symptoms of the disorder are nonspecific. Patients often attribute coughing, shoulder and back pain, and shortness of breath, to other factors. Consequently, they rarely see their doctors when these symptoms
The disease is usually detected when an abnormality is found during a routine physical exam. By this time, however, it has often spread past the lungs. This article will describe how the tumor spreads, and which parts of the body are most susceptible.
How Metastasis Of Lung Cancer Occurs
Lung cancer spreads (i.e. metastasizes) when diseased cells gain access to the bloodstream. Once they enter the blood vessels, they migrate to the organs and tissues throughout the body. Diseased cells can also enter the lymphatic system, which allows them to travel to the lymph nodes.
Metastasis To The Lymph Nodes
Technically, when lung cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, the disease is not said to metastasize. All but the first stage of the disorder includes spread to the lymph nodes. There are several types that are defined by location. The mediastinal nodes are found in the space between the lungs and chest; the intrapulmonary nodes are found within the lung; and the supraclavicular lymph nodes are found near the collar bone.
Signs of metastasis to the lymph nodes are seldom severe, and typically include trouble breathing deeply, swelling in the neck, and hoarseness.
Metastasis To The Brain
Lung cancer that has spread to the brain can cause several symptoms, some of which can be severe depending on how much of the brain tissue is affected. The disease can cause speech-related problems, seizures, vision problems, and other complications. You might also notice a loss of balance as well as difficulty walking.
Metastasis To The Liver
Lung cancer metastatic to the liver is often without symptoms. When symptoms display, they usually include abdominal pain, jaundice (if the hepatic ducts are blocked) and other signs reminiscent of gallbladder disease. Surgery can occasionally be done to remove the diseased masses, but chemotherapy is more common.
Metastasis To Bone
The spread of lung cancer to bones is common in a large percentage of diagnosed cases. The tumor typically spreads to the pelvic bones, large bones of the limbs, and the spine. Nearly all patients experience pain when this happens. It usually starts mildly, which causes many patients to mistake it for an overexertion of their muscles. With time, however, the pain becomes severe.
The disease can compromise the bones to the point that fractures form, and calcium escapes into the bloodstream. This can lead to other problems related to hypercalcemia.
Metastasis To The Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys, and release hormones involved with stress. Lung cancer commonly metastasizes to them due to their high volume of blood supply (per gram). However, it rarely causes noticeable symptoms.
In some cases, when the disease is diagnosed early enough to be eliminated through surgery, the affected adrenal gland can also be removed. More commonly, chemotherapy is used.
Treating Lung Cancer Before It Metastasizes
As long as the disease remains localized within the lung, it can normally be resolved via surgery. Minimally invasive procedures, such as a VATS (video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery) lobectomy, are being performed at a growing number of surgical centers. While the procedures are still relatively new compared to thoracotomy, they offer several advantages. Benefits include a lower likelihood of infection, less post-operative pain, and a shorter recovery time.
When lung cancer has spread outside the lungs, chemotherapy is necessary. Nearly half of patients with non-small cell lung cancer also receive radiation therapy.
The prognosis for the disease obviously worsens the later it is detected. For this reason, it is important to keep your doctor informed if you notice any uncharacteristic symptoms that persist.