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Cardiopulmonary Syndromes (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 03/25/2013

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Malignant Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion is extra fluid around the lungs.

The pleural cavity is the space between the pleura (thin layer of tissue) that covers the outer surface of each lung and lines the inner wall of the chest cavity. Pleural tissue usually makes a small amount of fluid that helps the lungs move smoothly in the chest while a person is breathing. A pleural effusion is extra fluid in the pleural cavity. The fluid presses on the lungs and makes it hard to breathe.

Pleural effusion may be caused by cancer, cancer treatment, or other conditions.

A pleural effusion may be malignant (caused by cancer) or nonmalignant (caused by a condition that is not cancer). Malignant pleural effusion is a common problem for patients who have certain cancers. Lung cancer, breast cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia cause most malignant effusions. An effusion also may be caused by cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Some cancer patients have conditions such as congestive heart failure, pneumonia, blood clot in the lung, and poor nutrition that may lead to a pleural effusion.

A diagnosis of the cause of pleural effusion is important in planning treatment.

These and other symptoms may be caused by a pleural effusion. Talk to your doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath).
  • Cough.
  • An uncomfortable feeling or pain in the chest.

Treatment for a malignant pleural effusion is different from treatment for a nonmalignant effusion, so the right diagnosis is important. Diagnostic tests include the following:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
    Chest x-ray; drawing shows the patient standing with her back to the x-ray machine.  X-rays are used to take pictures of organs and bones of the chest.  X-rays pass through the patient onto film.
    X-ray of the chest. X-rays are used to take pictures of organs and bones of the chest. X-rays pass through the patient onto film.

  • CT scan: A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
    Computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen; drawing shows the patient on a table that slides through the CT machine, which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the body.
    Computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen. The patient lies on a table that slides through the CT machine, which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the body.

  • Thoracentesis: The removal of fluid from the space between the lining of the chest and the lung, using a needle. A pathologist views the fluid under a microscope to look for cancer cells. This procedure may be used to reduce pressure on the lungs.

  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. If thoracentesis is not possible, a biopsy may be done during a thoracoscopy. A thoracoscopy is a procedure to look at the organs inside the chest to check for abnormal areas. An incision (cut) is made between two ribs and a thoracoscope (a thin, lighted tube with a lens for viewing) is inserted into the chest. A cutting tool at the end of the thoracoscope is used to remove a sample of tissue.

The type of cancer, previous treatment for cancer, and the patient's wishes also are important in planning treatment.

Treatment may be to control symptoms of pleural effusion and improve quality of life.

A malignant pleural effusion often occurs in cancer that is advanced , cannot be removed by surgery, or continues to grow or spread during treatment. It is also common during the last few weeks of life. The goal of treatment is usually palliative, to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

Treatment of the symptoms of malignant pleural effusion includes the following:

  • Thoracentesis

    Thoracentesis is a procedure to remove extra fluid from the pleural cavity using a needle and/or a thin, hollow plastic tube. Removal of the fluid may help to relieve severe symptoms for a short time. A few days after the extra fluid is removed it is likely it will begin to come back. The risk of a thoracentesis includes bleeding, infection, collapsed lung, fluid in the lungs, and low blood pressure.

  • Pleurodesis

    This is a procedure to close the pleural space so that fluid cannot collect there. Fluid is first removed by thoracentesis, using a chest tube. A drug that causes the pleural space to close is then inserted into the space through a chest tube. Drugs such as bleomycin or talc may be used.

  • Surgery

    Surgery may be done to put in a shunt (tube) to carry the fluid from the pleural cavity to the abdominal cavity, where the fluid is easier to remove. Pleurectomy is another type of surgery that may be used. In this procedure, the part of the pleura that lines the chest cavity is removed.