Superior Vena Cava (SVC) Syndrome

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

SVC syndrome is considered an "oncologic emergency", which is an acute health problem caused by the cancer itself or its treatment. Oncologic emergencies require immediate treatment.

SVC (Superior Vena Cava) syndrome is the result of a blockage of blood flow through the superior vena cava, a large blood vessel that returns blood from the upper body and head, to the heart. SVC syndrome is most commonly caused by a tumor or enlarged lymph nodes compressing on the SVC. SVC syndrome is most commonly seen in lung cancer, lymphoma, breast cancers and other primary tumors that have spread to the chest. It can also be caused by a central line causing blood clots within the SVC.

Symptoms of SVC syndrome include:

  • Swelling of the face, arms, or upper chest.
  • Difficulty breathing (dyspnea).
  • Widening of the veins in the neck and chest.
  • Cough and/or coughing up blood (hemoptysis).
  • Headache.
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia).
  • Hoarseness.
  • Chest pain.
  • Blue or red colored tinge to the skin of the face or upper body.

Management

SVC syndrome is an oncologic emergency. Diagnostic work-up includes imaging (CT/MRI/venography) to measure the blockage of the SVC. The treatment of SVC syndrome is directly related to its cause. If SVC syndrome is caused by tumor compression in/on the SVC, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be used to shrink the tumor, allowing blood flow to return to normal. Stent placement into the SVC to hold it open is also a treatment option in some patients. Blood thinners are used if the cause is a blood clot. Other short term treatments can include corticosteroids that decrease swelling and diuretics that decrease the amount of the fluid in the body. 

If you are experiencing any symptoms of SVC syndrome, contact your care team immediately.

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