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Cardiopulmonary Syndromes (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Superior Vena Cava Syndrome


In the absence of tracheal obstruction, SVCS is unlikely to be a life-threatening oncologic emergency, and treatment prior to definitive diagnosis is not justified.

The initial evaluation of the patient should include a chest radiograph to look for mediastinal masses and associated findings, such as pleural effusion, lobar collapse, or cardiomegaly. Computed tomography (CT) scanning of the thorax yields the most useful diagnostic information and can define the anatomy of the involved mediastinal nodes. Venous patency and the presence of thrombi are assessed by using contrast and rapid scanning techniques.[9] Depending on local expertise, contrast or nuclear venography, magnetic resonance imaging, and ultrasound may be valuable in assessing the site and nature of the obstruction.

If bronchogenic carcinoma is suspected, a sputum specimen should be obtained. If the sputum specimen is negative, a biopsy specimen should be taken from the most accessible site that is clinically involved with disease. The biopsy approach depends on the working diagnosis, the location of the tumor, the physiologic status of the patient, and the expertise available at the facility. It may include bronchoscopy, biopsy of palpable cervical or supraclavicular lymph nodes, needle biopsy of a lung mass or mediastinal nodes using either CT or ultrasound guidance, mediastinoscopy, mediastinotomy, median sternotomy, video-assisted thoracoscopy, and conventional thoracotomy.[10] The biopsy findings will help the clinician plan appropriate treatment.

Treatment Options

The treatment of SVCS depends on the etiology of the obstruction, the severity of the symptoms, the prognosis of the patient, and patient preferences and goals for therapy. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy should be withheld until the etiology of the obstruction is clear. The treatments discussed here focus on SVC obstruction caused by a malignant tumor. Since the treatment of malignant obstruction may depend on tumor histology, a histologic diagnosis, if not made earlier, should be made prior to initiation of treatment. Unless there is airway obstruction or cerebral edema, there appears to be no detriment in outcome when treatment is delayed for the assessment.[1,11,12,13,14,15] The following treatment approaches can be used for SVCS.

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