- If lung cancer spreads to the liver, it means the cancer has metastasized.
- New symptoms will appear, and your doctor will likely recommend new treatment options.
- Cancer survival statistics can’t give a complete picture of an individual person’s prognosis, but they can offer information on the success of available treatments.
Metastatic cancer is cancer that spreads from one area of the body to another. Lung cancer that metastasizes to the liver will result in new symptoms and likely new treatment options.
Before diagnosing the cancerous spread as liver metastases, your doctor will perform tests. These will help them come up with a treatment plan to reduce symptoms.
There is no cure for lung cancer, but treatments can slow its progression and provide comfort.
Survival rates are based on treatment outcomes among a large number of people. While they cannot predict outcomes for any single individual, they can give a sense of how likely it is that treatments succeed at fighting the cancer.
The area of the body where cancer is first found is called the primary site. If cancer breaks away from that initial site and begins spreading to other parts of the body, it is called metastasis.
When lung cancer metastasizes (moves) to the liver, it means that cancerous cells have traveled through the lymphatic system or bloodstream to the liver.
The cancerous cells in the liver resemble lung cancer cells. The type of cells are one thing doctors look at when deciding how to treat the cancer.
At first, you may feel tired or develop a fever and not experience any cancer-specific symptoms. In fact, many people don’t have symptoms in the early stages.
As lung cancer that has spread to the liver progresses, you may experience the following:
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
- itchy skin
- bloated belly
- leg swelling
Some individuals may experience pain in the upper right part of the abdomen. The liver itself may be larger than is typical and feel hard or tender to the touch on the right side of the body. If the liver is significantly enlarged, the metastases may be advanced.
Some people may get hepatic encephalopathy (HE) in later stages of lung cancer that has metastasized to the liver. Other serious liver complications can also lead to HE.
The condition causes reduced brain function because the liver can no longer filter out toxins in the blood. Signs of HE include confusion and sleepiness.
If you experience any of these symptoms, tell your doctor so they can start running tests that will help determine how to best care for you.
First, your doctor may order blood tests to see how your liver is functioning. Abnormalities do not necessarily mean your lung cancer has metastasized to the liver, but such findings will likely lead to more testing.
For example, if abnormalities are found, your doctor may decide to run imaging tests. A CT scan or MRI scan allows healthcare professionals to see what’s going on with the liver more closely.
Unfortunately, these scans aren’t foolproof and may miss small tumors. Other liver conditions, like cirrhosis, can sometimes resemble cancer. So, you may need more tests before you are diagnosed with anything.
A liver biopsy is one such procedure. This involves removing a sample of liver tissue with a needle. The biopsy results can help doctors obtain a conclusive diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer.
Once a diagnosis is determined, your doctor will design a treatment plan just for you.
Possible treatments for lung cancer that has metastasized into the liver are:
- Chemotherapy: to shrink the tumors
- Radiation: to reduce pain in advanced cancer, including stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT)
- Surgery: to remove the tumors
Your doctor may recommend one or more of these treatments, depending on how much the cancer has spread. In more advanced cases, doctors look to reduce symptoms, since getting rid of the cancer isn’t possible.
Before making any decisions, you’ll want to consider both potential benefits and side effects.
Chemotherapy is the most common treatment. It’s used to slow the growth of the cancer and also to offer relief from symptoms.
SBRT is a newer form of radiation. It requires less time and has fewer side effects than traditional radiation methods, called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). Since it can more precisely target liver cancer cells, it may limit damage to healthy tissue.
SBRT is given over just a few days, whereas EBRT is done 5 days per week for several weeks.
SBRT is usually a palliative treatment for lung cancer that has metastasized to the liver. The goal is to reduce pain, not to provide a cure.
Finally, surgery is an option if your doctor only finds a couple of areas where the cancer has spread.
Cancer survival statistics don’t give a complete picture of an individual person’s outlook.
The American Cancer Society says that survival rates are 7 percent for non-small cell lung cancer and 3 percent for small cell lung cancer that have spread to other organs. The data is based on diagnoses that occurred between 2009 and 2015.
The survival rate is the percentage of people still living a certain number of years after diagnosis, usually 5 years. While survival statistics can’t provide individuals with an accurate understanding of how long they’ll live, they can offer useful information on the general success of treatments.
It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor about how these stats might apply to you, given your overall health and treatment options.
Outlook depends on a variety of factors. To guide the next steps in treatment, your doctor will review:
- the subtype of lung cancer
- the rate of spread
- the number and size of tumors
- your overall health
- your age
- how the cancer responds to interventions
A doctor may perform tests to confirm the cancer has metastasized to the liver.
Following a metastatic lung cancer diagnosis, there are a few different treatment options. These are aimed at shrinking or removing tumors and reducing pain.
The survival rate for metastatic lung cancer doesn’t take into account factors that can improve a person’s outlook, nor does it reflect newer treatments.
Survival rates can’t tell you how long you’ll live following a metastatic lung cancer diagnosis, but they can help you understand the how successful treatments are on average.