What is Metastatic Lung Cancer?

metastatic lung cancer, mlcMetastatic lung cancer. Three words no one ever wants to hear. But, because nearly 40% of people with newly diagnosed lung cancer already have metastases to other parts of the body,[1] it’s important to understand the gravity of the term and how early recognition of symptoms may help prevent lung cancer from spreading.


Metastatic lung cancer is lung cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. The process is referred to as metastasis and it occurs when parts of the tumor in the lung break off and travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other areas of the body where they continue to grow. It’s important to note that lung cancer that spreads to the bone, for example, is still referred to as lung cancer, not bone cancer. The same applies to lung cancer that spreads to the brain and other regions of the body.

Early Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Being that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the United States, it’s surprising that only a small percentage of the population are familiar with the most common symptoms. Unfortunately, almost half of the people diagnosed with the disease are already in its advanced stages.

It’s estimated that nearly 90% of all people diagnosed with lung cancer have symptoms at the time of their diagnosis. So why is it that people aren’t being diagnosed sooner? Besides the lack of public awareness of the most common symptoms mentioned previously, early symptoms of lung cancer are often subtle or vague. They’re also often attributed to something else entirely. What can we do to change this?

Recognizing the following early symptoms of lung cancer may lead to earlier diagnosis and improve your chances for survival.

  • Persistent cough – by far, the most common symptom of lung cancer is a cough that doesn’t seem to go away. This cough can manifest as wet or dry, frequent or infrequent and can occur at any time of the day. You may dismiss this cough as being due to smoking, allergies, dry air or perhaps you have a left-over cough from a cold. However you describe it, a cough that doesn’t go away after a week or two can be a sign of something far more serious and warrants a visit to the doctor.
  • Shortness of breath with activity – this is another common symptom of lung cancer that often gets attributed to something less worrisome, such as being overweight, getting older or being out of shape. If you start taking the elevator instead of the stairs or start avoiding sexual activity because it makes you breathless, it’s time for you to see your doctor.
  • Hemoptysis (coughing up blood) – this happens to be the only symptom for 7% of the population at the time of diagnosis. Don’t ignore this symptom. Coughing up as little as 2 teaspoons of blood is considered an emergency that needs to be immediately investigated.
  • Recurring infections (pneumonia, bronchitis) – it’s not unusual for someone to be diagnosed with lung cancer after being treated for a lung infection that keeps reoccurring. Although it could easily be something else, it could also be a symptom of lung cancer, especially if the infection isn’t associated with other symptoms such as a fever.
  • Shoulder and arm pain – certain tumors called Pancoast tumors are known to cause symptoms that are not typical of lung cancer, such as shoulder pain that spreads down the arm to the pinky finger, tingling and weakness of the hands and Horner’s syndrome. Tumors such as these are difficult to visualize on imaging studies which is one of the reasons a lung cancer diagnosis may get delayed.
  • Chest pain – also defined as lung pain; common even in the early stages of lung cancer occurring in up to 50% of people at the time of diagnosis.
  • Unexplained weight loss – defined as the loss of more than 10 pounds in a 6 to 12 month period. Occurs in up to 70% of all people at the time they are diagnosed.
  • Back pain – referred to as a relatively common, first sign of lung cancer. Often occurs in the mid to upper back, is present even at rest and tends to worsen at night or when you take a deep breath.

Less Common Symptoms of Lung Cancer

In addition to the common symptoms of lung cancer listed above, the following symptoms are less commonly associated with the disease:

Symptoms of Metastatic Lung Cancer

Sadly, lung cancer is most often diagnosed after it’s already spread to other areas of the body. The most common regions of metastases include the brain, bones, liver and adrenal glands.

Possible symptoms of metastatic lung cancer include:

  • Headaches, weakness and seizures due to metastasis to the brain.
  • Back pain due to metastasis to the bone.
  • Upper abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting due to metastasis to the liver.
  • Any abnormal symptoms or a general decline in health; pay attention to your gut feeling.

If you think you have any of the early symptoms of lung cancer or symptoms relative to metastatic lung cancer, it’s important you schedule an appointment with your primary care provider as soon as possible to be thoroughly evaluated. Don’t hesitate. It could cost you your life.


Eldridge, Lynne MD. Where Does Lung Cancer Spread? Verywell.com. Updated July 14, 2017.


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