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Lung Cancer Spread to the Liver

Understanding Lung Cancer with Liver Metastases


Updated July 14, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Lung cancer spread (metastatic) to the liver is sadly too common. Nearly 40% of people with lung cancer have metastases to a distant region of the body at the time of diagnosis. What can you expect if your lung cancer has spread to your liver?

Definition of Lung Cancer Spread to the Liver

Lung cancer that has spread to the liver is called “lung cancer metastatic to the liver” (in contrast to metastatic liver cancer, which would refer to a cancer that began in the liver and spreads to another region of the body). For people with non-small cell lung cancer, the spread of the cancer to the liver would classify it as a stage 4 cancer. With small cell lung cancer, it would be classified as extensive stage.

Lung cancer can spread to any region of the body, but most commonly spreads to the liver, the lymph nodes, the brain, the bones, and the adrenal glands.


If your lung cancer has spread to your liver, you may not have any symptoms. In fact, the spread (metastasis) is often discovered when a test, such as a CT scan, is done to determine the stage of your cancer.

If you do have symptoms,, these may include pain under your ribs on the right side of your body, and general symptoms, such as loss of appetite and nausea. If you have many tumors in your liver or if the metastasis is large enough to obstruct your bile ducts, you may develop jaundice, a yellowish discoloration of your skin and the white part of your eyes.


Tests that may be done to look for liver metastases from lung cancer include:

It is important to note that abnormal findings are quite common when scans are done of the liver, and sometimes it can be hard to determine if a spot or spots in the liver are due to the spread of cancer or another (benign) cause. If your doctor is uncertain whether or not an abnormality in your liver is related to your cancer, and the treatment approach would vary depending upon the results, she may recommend a liver biopsy in order to look at the tissue to be certain of your diagnosis.

How is Lung Cancer That Has Spread to the Liver Treated?

The treatment of lung cancer that has metastasized to the liver is primarily palliative, meaning that the goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms rather than attempt to cure the disease. Chemotherapy and/or targeted therapies may be used to treat stage 4 lung cancer in general. On rare occasion and if only a single metastasis is present in the liver, surgery to remove the tumor has been done, but again, this is very rare.


Lung cancer that has spread to the liver, sadly, has a poor prognosis. The median survival for people living with stage 4 non-small cell (metastatic) lung cancer is only around 8 months, though there is at least one reported case of long-term survival in a patient with lung cancer metastatic to his liver. The average survival time for people with extensive stage small cell (metastatic) lung cancer is 2 to 4 months without treatment and 6 to 12 months with treatment.

Further Reading:


Nagashima, A. et al. Long term survival after surgical resection of liver metastasis from lung cancer. The Japanese Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. 2004. 52(6):311-3.

National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Liver Metastases. Updated 06/05/12. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000277.htm

Ravenel, J. et al. ACR Appropriateness Criteria® noninvasive clinical staging of bronchogenic carcinoma. Journal of Thoracic Imaging. 2010. 25(4):W107-11.

Schrevens, L. et al. The Role of PET Scan in Diagnosis, Staging, and Management of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. The Oncologist. 2004. 9(6):633-643.

Ueda, J. et al. Surgical Resection of Solitary Metastatic Liver Tumor Arising From Lung Cancer: A Case Series. Hepatogastroenterology. 2012. doi: 10.5753/hge12000. (Epub ahead of print).

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