Superior Vena Cava (SVC) Syndrome
What is superior vena cava syndrome (SVC)?
The superior vena cava (SVC) is a large blood vessel that sends blood from the upper body and head to the heart. SVC syndrome happens when blood flow through the superior vena cava is blocked.
SVC syndrome is an oncologic emergency, which is a serious health problem caused by the cancer itself or its treatment. Oncologic emergencies need to be treated right away.
What causes SVC syndrome?
SVC syndrome is most often caused by a tumor or enlarged lymph nodes pressing on the SVC. SVC syndrome is most often seen in lung cancer, lymphoma, breast cancers, and other primary tumors that have spread to the chest. It can also be caused by blood clots within the SVC.
What are the symptoms of SVC syndrome?
Symptoms can happen slowly or quickly. If the SVC syndrome is caused by cancer, then symptoms often happen more slowly than if it is being caused by clots. Symptoms can include:
- Swelling of the face, arms, or upper chest.
- Having a hard time breathing (dyspnea).
- Widening of the veins in the neck and chest.
- Cough and/or coughing up blood (hemoptysis).
- Trouble swallowing (dysphagia).
- Hoarseness of the voice.
- Chest pain.
- Blue or red-colored tinge to the skin of the face or upper body.
How is it treated?
SVC syndrome is an oncologic emergency and needs to be treated right away. You may have imaging tests (CT/MRI/venography) to measure the blockage of the SVC.
SVC syndrome is treated by treating the cause. If SVC syndrome is caused by tumor compression in/on the SVC, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be used to shrink the tumor, letting blood flow return to normal. A stent may be placed in the SVC to hold it open to allow blood flow. If a blood clot is causing SVC syndrome, blood thinners will be given. Other short-term treatments include corticosteroids that decrease swelling and diuretics that decrease the amount of fluid in the body.
When should I contact my care team?
If you are having any symptoms of SVC syndrome, contact your care team right away.
Canadian Cancer Society. Superior Vena Cava Syndrome. Found at https://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/diagnosis-and-treatment/managing-side-effects/superior-vena-cava-syndrome/?region=on
Seligson, M.T. & Surowiec, S.M. 2020. Superior Vena Cava Syndrome. StatPearls. Found at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441981/