How to Tell If Lung Cancer Is Spreading?

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At advanced stage, cancer cells from the lung can spread beyond the lungs. Once they have arrived in the nearby lymph nodes, they are relatively easier to spread to other parts of the body. They can spread through bloodstream, too. How to tell if your lung cancer is spreading? Are there any symptoms for your guidance?

Where does lung cancer usually spread to in the body?

Not all cases of lung cancer will spread and cause secondary cancer. But in fact, many times it is caught at advanced stages or even has metastasized to another distant organ. The lately diagnosis of the disease is one of the reasons why it ranks first in causing cancer-death (death that occurs due to cancer).

When it has become advanced, it is more difficult to treat since it is less likely to respond the treatment. Furthermore, there is lower chance to remove the cancer completely. As a result, the chance for the cancer to return is high, too.

Theoretically, it can spread ‘anywhere’.

But according to statistics, the metastasis of lung cancer (a condition of when cancer has spread to other parts of the body) is likely to spread to the following places; nearby lymph nodes, liver, bones, brain, and adrenal glands.


Depending on where it spreads, some specific symptoms may occur. Interestingly, a symptom related to a metastatic cancer is usually not easy to improve, doesn’t go away on its own, and will last for a couple of weeks. Many times, medical intervention is required.

But the symptom may also be attributed by another underlying cause. This means that the diagnosis is not enough by observing the symptom that you have. Some tests and procedures are usually required to make sure whether or not your cancer is spreading to other areas of the body.

How to tell if lung cancer is spreading to the lymph nodes?

Cancer can grow and develop in the lymph nodes in two different ways. It can grow from the original cells of lymphatic system and start as a primary cancer (lymphoma). Or it can spread (metastasis) into the lymph nodes from cancer (primary cancer) elsewhere in the body and start there as a secondary cancer.

So, metastatic lymph node cancer is different of having lymphoma (a cancer that originally started in the lymphatic system). The treatment for primary and secondary cancer is not the same, too!

How do cancer cells from a primary tumor in the lung spread into lymph nodes?

Over time, cancer cells can break away from a primary tumor. They can go into bloodstream and lymph system, which then they can travel and spread to other areas of the body.

It is common or even very common for cancer cells to spread from the organ where they first started in the body to the nearby lymph nodes. The same goes for lung cancer.

The metastasis of lung cancer is quite common to be found in the nearby lymph nodes, especially those within the chest, in the abdomen, armpit, and neck. The cancer cells spread through a natural circulation of tissue fluid from the lung into the lymphatic system.

Cancer cells that go into the lymphatic system are likely to end up in the lymph nodes. Some are killed or dead, but some may survive to grow and cause secondary cancer.

image_illustration386So cells of cancer usually need to go through several changes before eventually they can spread and cause a secondary cancer. For summary, here are some checklists of how they can spread:

  1. First, they need to break away from the original tumor.
  2. Then they need to attach to the outside wall of blood vessel and lymph vessel.
  3. Then they have to move through the wall of vessel to flow with blood or/and lymph before eventually they arrive to a lymph node or a distant organ.
  4. Once they have arrived in a lymph node or a new organ, they need to survive to fight against the immune system before eventually they can grow and form a secondary cancer.

What are the symptoms?

A secondary cancer in the lymph node can cause swollen (enlarged) lymph node. This is easier to see if lymph node is close to the surface of the body – for instance, in the armpit and neck.

Swollen lymph nodes within the chest are usually seen on a scan. Sometime this may cause extra pressure on surrounding structures, causing backache or breathlessness.

The symptoms can be vogue. The affected lymph nodes may feel normal if there are only a small number of cancerous cells in there. Furthermore, an enlarged or swollen lymph node can also be attributed by another underlying cause such as infections.

Tests and diagnosis

To clearly figure out whether the cancer is spreading to lymph nodes, some tests are required. First you may be asked to take an imaging test such as CT-scan, MRI, or ultrasound scan.

A biopsy, a procedure to remove one lymph node, is often used. Then the removed lymph node will be closely observed under the microscope to find any cancer cells. It can be done at the first diagnosis of the primary cancer (lung cancer) or during surgery of removing a primary cancerous tumor.

How to know if it has spread to the liver?

Liver is pretty close to the lungs. They are also connected by many blood vessels. These are some reasons of why the metastasis of lung cancer to the liver is quite common.

Once the cancer has spread to the liver, the prognosis and survival rate from the disease can drop significantly. However each case of cancer is not the same (unique). There is no any statistic that can predict and tell you exactly what will happen.

Metastatic liver cancer can cause several symptoms. These include fatigue, discomforts in the right side of the abdomen, appetite changes, swollen liver, and swollen abdomen.

*See more about lung cancer with liver metastasis in this section!

How to tell whether lung cancer is spreading to bones?

The bones are made by living tissues that constantly changes. This is naturally very well controlled to help keep your bones strong and healthy.

To run this natural mechanism, your bones have two specialized cells (‘osteoclasts’ that can break old bone and ‘osteoblasts’ that can help build new bone).

Advanced lung cancer can spread to the bones, causing metastatic bone cancer. And the cancer can interrupt with the balance of osteoclasts and osteoblasts. The imbalance can lead to some symptoms, but in essence it can damage your bones.

*See more detailed information about lung cancer that is spreading to bones in here!

Symptoms of when lung cancer is spreading to brain

There are some types of lung cancer. But overall, these are classified into two major types; small cell and non-small cell.

Non-small cell carcinoma is more common than small cell carcinoma. Knowing the type of your lung cancer is very important since it can play a key role in determining the treatment plan.

In some cases, advanced lung cancer can spread to the brain, causing secondary brain cancer. Small cell is likely to spread to the brain than non-small cell. The symptoms of this metastasis may include drowsiness, confusion, headache, and weakness of an arm /leg.

*You can learn more about lung cancer with brain metastasis in this post!

How to know when lung cancer has spread to adrenal glands?

Adrenal glands, two essential glands above on two kidneys, are the next common destination of where advanced lung cancer spreads. These glands are important to make some essential hormones.

Lack of adrenal hormones can cause some symptoms, and this is particularly true if both adrenal glands are affected by the cancer. The symptoms vary, but these may include stomach aches, unintended weight loss, fatigue, and even faintness.

Some tests are available to help diagnose the diagnosis of metastatic adrenal gland cancer.

*For more information about lung cancer that is spreading to adrenal glands, see this previous post!

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