Cardiopulmonary Syndromes (PDQ®)

Cardiopulmonary Syndrome Overview

Cardiopulmonary syndromes are heart and lung symptoms, such as dyspnea (shortness of breath), cough, chest pain, irregular heartbeats, and excess fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion) and/or heart (pericardial effusion). These may be caused by cancer or by other conditions. Four cardiopulmonary syndromes commonly caused by cancer are covered in this summary:

Dyspnea and Coughing During Advanced Cancer

General Information about Dyspnea and Coughing

Dyspnea is difficult, painful breathing or shortness of breath. Patients may use different words to describe the feeling of breathlessness; terms such as "tightness in the chest" and "suffocating" are sometimes used. The distress caused by dyspnea is different for each patient, from mild discomfort in one patient to severe discomfort in another. Dyspnea is common in patients with advanced cancer, lung cancer, and in the last 6 weeks of life.

Causes of Dyspnea and Coughing

Many conditions may cause dyspnea and coughing. In cancer patients, causes may include the following:

Diagnosis of Dyspnea and Coughing

A diagnosis of the cause of the patient's dyspnea and coughing is helpful in planning treatment. Diagnostic tests and procedures may include the following:

Managing Dyspnea and Coughing

Management of Causes of Dyspnea

It may be possible to identify and treat the causes of dyspnea. Treatment may include the following:

Management of Symptoms of Dyspnea

Management of the symptoms of dyspnea may include the following:

Management of Chronic Cough

In some patients, chronic (long-term) coughing causes pain, interferes with sleep, and worsens dyspnea and fatigue. Treatments include the following:

Malignant Pleural Effusions

General Information about Malignant Pleural Effusions

The pleural cavity is the space surrounding each lung in the chest. The pleura is the thin layer of tissue that covers the outer surface of each lung and lines the interior wall of the chest cavity, creating a sac that encloses the pleural cavity. Pleural tissue normally produces a small amount of fluid that helps the lungs move smoothly in the chest while a person is breathing. A pleural effusion is an increased amount of fluid in the pleural cavity, which then presses on the lungs and makes breathing difficult.

Causes of Malignant Pleural Effusions

Pleural effusions may be malignant (caused by cancer) or nonmalignant (caused by a condition that is not cancer). Malignant effusions are a common complication of cancer. Lung cancer, breast cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia cause most malignant effusions. Effusions caused by cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, are called paramalignant effusions.

Not all pleural effusions found in cancer patients are malignant. Cancer patients often develop conditions such as congestive heart failure, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and malnutrition, and these conditions may cause pleural effusions to occur.

Diagnosis of Malignant Pleural Effusion

The following symptoms may be caused by malignant pleural effusion:

The management of a malignant pleural effusion is different from the management of a nonmalignant effusion, so an accurate diagnosis is important. Diagnostic tests may include the following:

Managing Malignant Pleural Effusions

Malignant pleural effusions often occur in advanced or unresectable cancer or in the last few weeks of life. The goal of treatment is usually palliative, to relieve the symptoms and improve the quality of life. The goals of therapy will depend on a number of factors, including the following:

Treatment of the symptoms of malignant pleural effusion may include the following:

Malignant Pericardial Effusions

General Information about Malignant Pericardial Effusions

Pericardial effusion is an increased amount of fluid inside the pericardium, the thin layer of tissue that forms a sac surrounding the heart. The excess fluid causes pressure on the heart, which prevents it from pumping blood normally. Lymph vessels may also be blocked, and bacterial or viral infections often develop. If fluid builds up very quickly, a condition called cardiac tamponade may occur, in which the pressure on the heart becomes life-threatening and must be treated promptly.

Causes of Malignant Pericardial Effusions

Pericardial effusions may be malignant or nonmalignant. Malignant pericardial effusions are caused by cancer that begins in the pericardium or the heart muscle, or by cancer that has spread there from the lung, esophagus, thymus, or lymph system. Malignant pericardial effusions are commonly caused by lung cancer in males and breast cancer in females. Nonmalignant causes include infection of the pericardium, heart attack, underactive thyroid gland, lupus, injury, surgery, and AIDS. Infection of the pericardium is a possible side effect of radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Diagnosis of Malignant Pericardial Effusion

The following symptoms may be caused by malignant pericardial effusions:

Because pericardial effusions usually occur in advanced cancer or in the last few weeks of life, extensive diagnostic testing may be less important than relief of symptoms. The following tests and procedure may be used to diagnose pericardial effusion:

Managing Malignant Pericardial Effusions

Large malignant pericardial effusions are managed by draining the fluid, unless the goals of therapy are to use a less invasive approach that may improve quality of life but not help the patient live longer. The goals of therapy depend on a number of factors, including the following:

Treatment options include the following:

Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

General Information about Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS) is a group of symptoms that occur when the superior vena cava becomes partially blocked.

The right atrium (chamber) of the heart receives blood from two major veins: the superior (upper) vena cava and the inferior (lower) vena cava.

The superior vena cava is thin-walled, and the blood is under low pressure. If a tumor forms in the chest or nearby lymph nodes become swollen (as from lymphoma), the superior vena cava can be squeezed. Blood flow slows. Complete blockage of the vein can occur. Sometimes, the other veins can become larger and take over for the superior vena cava if it is blocked, but this takes time. Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS) is the group of symptoms that occur when this vein is partially blocked.

The location of the blocked area and how fast the blockage occurs affect the symptoms.

The symptoms will be more severe if the vein becomes blocked quickly. This is because the other veins do not have time to widen and take over the increased blood flow from the superior vena cava.

The location of the blocked area also affects how severe the symptoms will be:

Common symptoms of SVCS include breathing problems and coughing.

The most common symptoms are these:

Less common symptoms include the following:

Causes of Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS) is usually caused by cancer. In adults, SVCS most commonly occurs with lung cancer or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A tumor in the chest or swollen lymph nodes can press on the superior vena cava, blocking the blood flow. There are other less common causes for the superior vena cava to become blocked:

Diagnosis of Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

The following tests may be done to diagnose SVCS and find the location of the blockage:

The type of cancer can affect the type of treatment needed; for this reason, a diagnosis of suspected cancer should be made before treatment of SVCS is begun. Unless the airway is blocked or the brain is swelling, waiting to start treatment while a diagnosis is made usually presents no problem in adults. If lung cancer is suspected, a sputum sample and a biopsy may be taken.

Managing Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

This summary is about treatment for superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS) caused by cancer. Treatment will depend on the following:

Treatment of SVCS may include the following:

Watchful waiting

Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient’s condition without giving any treatment unless symptoms appear or change. A patient who has good blood flow through other veins and mild symptoms may not need treatment.

The following may be used to relieve symptoms and keep the patient comfortable:

Radiation therapy

If the blockage of the superior vena cava is caused by a tumor that is not sensitive to chemotherapy, radiation therapy may be given. Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.


Chemotherapy is the usual treatment for tumors that respond to anticancer drugs, including small cell lung cancer and lymphoma. This treatment would not be changed for patients who have SVCS. Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).


SVCS may occur when a thrombus (blood clot) forms in a partially blocked vein. Thrombolysis is a method used to break up and remove blood clots. This may done using a drug put directly into the clot, through a catheter, or by a thrombectomy (the use of a device inserted into the vein).

Stent placement

A stent may be used to open up the blocked vein. A stent is a tube-like device that is inserted into the blocked area of a vein to allow blood to pass through. This helps most patients. Patients may also receive an anticoagulant to keep more blood clots from forming.


Surgery to bypass (go around) the blocked part of the vein is sometimes used for cancer patients, but is used more often for patients without cancer.

Social Considerations of Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

Superior vena cava syndrome is serious and the symptoms can be upsetting to the patient and family. It is important that patients and family members receive information about the causes of superior vena cava syndrome and how to treat it. This can help relieve anxiety over symptoms such as swelling, trouble swallowing, coughing, and hoarseness.

When a patient has chosen not to receive aggressive treatment because of terminal cancer, palliative treatment can help keep the patient comfortable by relieving symptoms. Patients and family members can be taught how to provide palliative care to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

Superior Vena Cava Syndrome in Children

Superior vena cava syndrome in a child is a serious medical emergency because the child's windpipe can become blocked.

Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS) in children can be life threatening. This is because blockage of the child's trachea (windpipe) can quickly occur along with SVCS. In adults, the windpipe is fairly hard, but in children, it is softer and can more easily be squeezed shut. Also, the diameter of a child's windpipe is smaller, so any amount of swelling can cause breathing problems. Squeezing of the trachea is called superior mediastinal syndrome (SMS). Because SVCS and SMS often occur together in children, the two syndromes are considered to be the same.

The most common symptoms of SVCS in children are similar to those in adults.

Common symptoms include the following:

There are other less common but more serious symptoms:

The causes, diagnosis, and treatment of SVCS in children are not the same as in adults.

The most common cause of SVCS in children is non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

SVCS in children is rare; the most common cause is non-Hodgkin lymphoma. As in adults, SVCS may also be caused by a blood clot that forms as a side effect of using an intravenous catheter.

SVCS in children may be diagnosed and treated before a definite diagnosis of cancer is made.

A physical exam, chest x-ray, and medical history are usually all that are needed to diagnose superior vena cava syndrome in children. If cancer is suspected, a biopsy is not done unless the lungs and heart of the child with SVCS are able to handle the anesthesia needed. Other imaging tests may be done to help determine if anesthesia can be safely used. In most cases, treatment will begin before a definite diagnosis of cancer is made.

It is important that treatment begins right away.

The following treatments may be used for SVCS in children:

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Changes to This Summary (07/16/2007)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

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PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

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The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

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Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

Date first published 2004-02-20

Date last modified 2007-07-16