Many people with secondary breast cancer develop tumours in their lungs or surrounding membranes (pleura).

What problems can secondaries in the lung cause?

Metastatic tumours in the lungs can cause problems such as:

  • Breathlessness
  • Chest pain
  • A cough
  • Fluid collecting on the lungs (pleural effusion), which can lead to breathlessness and discomfort

Tumours in the lung often don’t cause problems for some time, and treatments may help to relieve some symptoms.

What treatments might I receive?

Most patients with secondary breast cancer receive anticancer drugs.

Additional treatments your treatment team may recommend for you are:

  • Drugs and other treatments to improve breathing
  • Draining fluid off your lungs
  • Painkillers
  • Surgery
  • Radiotherapy

You may also be offered to take part in a clinical trial.

Treatments to improve breathing

Treatments can help to reduce coughing and breathlessness. These include cough medicines, oxygen or opioids or steroids to open your airways (inhalers). Learning breathing techniques to cope with breathlessness can also be helpful.

Treatments can also control pain. You can learn more about these in our section on quality of life.

Draining fluid off the lungs

Your lungs are surrounded by two membranes. Sometimes, cancer can cause fluid to collect between these membranes, which is called pleural effusion.

Draining any excess fluid from your lungs may help you to breathe more easily. A doctor can drain off the fluid using a needle inserted through the skin, or by placing a temporary or permanent drain (tube) in your chest.

After fluid is drained it can come back, which is why a permanent drain can be helpful.

You’ll have a local anaesthetic before the procedure, so it is not painful.

Another procedure called pleurodesis can help to stop the fluid collecting again.

In this procedure, the two membranes around your lung are stuck together, most commonly using a talc. This stops fluid collecting in this space.

There are some risks of these procedures and your oncology team will discuss these with you.

Steroids

You may be recommended steroids (also known as corticosteroids) if your tumour is putting pressure on your nerves and this is causing symptoms.

Examples are dexamethasone and prednisolone. Steroids can also help to relieve bone pain.

Painkillers

Painkillers can help to block bone pain. They can be very effective at relieving pain.

The type of painkiller you’re prescribed will be tailored to treat the level of pain you have.

You can learn more about treatments for pain in our section on quality of life.

Surgery

Occasionally, surgery to remove a secondary tumour in the lung is possible if you have a single or few lung tumours. Some lung surgery can be performed using laparoscopy (key-hole surgery), which has fewer risks than open surgery.

A type of surgery sometimes used involves radiofrequency ablation. This uses heat produced by radiowaves to kill cancer cells.

Unfortunately, for most people with secondaries in the lung, surgery to remove them isn’t possible.

The use of surgery to treat secondary breast cancer in the lung hasn’t been researched in a large trial, so it’s hard to know how well it works. This is another reason it’s not often used.

Breathlessness is sometimes caused by cancer narrowing the airways in the lungs. If you have this, your surgeon might recommend surgery to widen your airway and help you breathe more easily.

This is done through a procedure called a bronchoscopy, which uses a small tube with a camera put down your airway into your lung.

If you’re offered surgery, your surgeon can explain what side effects you might experience and the risks.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is treatment with radiation to kill cancer cells. It can sometimes be useful for treating secondaries in the lungs.

If you’re offered radiotherapy, your radiology or clinical oncologist can explain what side effects you might experience and the risks, depending on the details of your operation.

Watch our video about treating cancer in the lungs:

Tips and advice

Advice on getting the best care

To help you feel confident you’re getting the best care, you may want to:

  • Ask your treatment team to explain what your treatment options are, and why they are recommending a particular drug or procedure for you
  • Ask whether an expert such as an pulmonary (lung) surgeon can be consulted about your treatment, if they haven’t been already
  • Ask whether there are any additional options for you, including new procedures, clinical trials or treatment at other centres
  • Go over the risks and benefits of each treatment with your treatment team
  • Speak up if you get new symptoms or side effects – your treatment team can often help by prescribing additional treatment

Information Standard

Information last reviewed: October 2015

Breast Cancer Now's health information is covered by NHS England's Information Standard quality mark. Find out how this resource was developed.