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 your upper body and head to your 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 SVC syndrome is caused by cancer, then symptoms often happen more slowly than if it is being caused by clots. Symptoms can be:
- 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).
- Having a hard time swallowing (dysphagia).
- A hoarse or strained voice.
- Chest pain.
- Blue or red-colored tinge to the skin of the face or upper body.
How is it treated?
SVC syndrome is treated by treating the cause:
- If SVC syndrome is caused by a tumor pressing on the SVC, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be used to shrink the tumor. This helps the blood flow better. 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.
- Corticosteroids can be used to lessen swelling.
- Diuretics may be used to decrease the amount of fluid in the body.
When should I call my care team?
If you are having any symptoms of SVC syndrome listed above, call your care team right away. If you are having a hard time breathing, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). (2020). Superior Vena Cava Syndrome. Taken from https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/physical-emotional-and-social-effects-cancer/managing-physical-side-effects/superior-vena-cava-syndrome
Azizi A, Shafi I, Shah N, et al. Superior Vena Cava Syndrome. J Am Coll Cardiol Intv. 2020 Dec, 13 (24) 2896–2910.
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/