What Is the Relationship between Pleural Effusion and Lung Cancer?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2018
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Pleural effusion and lung cancer are closely connected, as advanced lung cancer can cause a form of this condition known as malignant pleural effusion. The development of pleural effusion in a cancer patient is a bad sign, and indicates that the patient's chances of survival may be slim. Many patients live only three to seven months after the onset of pleural effusion, even with treatment. A doctor may assess the patient and recommend palliative care only rather that putting the patient through painful surgical interventions.

In pleural effusion, the space between the lungs and their outer lining becomes filled with fluid. The patient has difficulty breathing and may experience chest pain and coughing. The fluid can be seen in medical imaging studies and a doctor can take a sample through a needle aspiration biopsy to examine it. If cancerous cells are present, the patient has malignant pleural effusion. Lung cancers are the leading cause of this condition. They account for around 35% of cases of malignant pleural effusion, followed closely by breast cancers, which account for around 25% of cases. The connection between pleural effusion and lung cancer is important for patients to be aware of, as they should report pleural effusion symptoms early to get the best treatment.


When a doctor suspects that a patient has pleural effusion and lung cancer is a known issue, she may suspect a malignant case, indicating that the cancer is spreading. A biopsy specimen can confirm this, and then the doctor can discuss treatment options. One option is no treatment beyond palliative care, which can include pain management as well as oxygen therapy to help the patient breathe. The pleural effusion and lung cancer patient will have decreased mobility and may need more support during the last months of his life.

Another option is a procedure called pleurodesis, where a surgeon introduces an irritant to encourage the membranes to form adhesions, forcing fluid out and preventing a buildup of fluid in the future. This can be done at the patient's bedside or in the operating room. The doctor may recommend this to a patient with pleural effusion and lung cancer if it has a chance of improving quality of life or extending the patient's survival.

Lung cancer patients should consider their options carefully when they develop complications. Not treating them will result in certain death, but the treatment can be very harsh. Sometimes it will actually shorten the patient's life, or could lead to more serious complications. In other cases it may be very uncomfortable, with minimal payoff. Patients can talk to their doctors as well as friends and advisers in the process of making a decision about how to move forward with treatment.



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