Cystic Primary Lung Cancer: Evolution of Computed Tomography Imaging Morphology Over Time

J Thorac Imaging. 2021 Nov 1;36(6):373-381. doi: 10.1097/RTI.0000000000000594.


Purpose: Primary lung cancers associated with cystic airspaces are increasingly being recognized; however, there is a paucity of data on their natural history. We aimed to evaluate the prevalence, pathologic, and imaging characteristics of cystic lung cancer in a regional thoracic surgery center with a focus on the evolution of computed tomography morphology over time.

Materials and methods: Consecutive patients referred for potential surgical management of primary lung cancer between January 2016 and December 2018 were included. Clinical, imaging, and pathologic data were collected at the time of diagnosis and at the time of the oldest computed tomography showing the target lesion. Descriptive analysis was carried out.

Results: A total of 441 cancers in 431 patients (185 males, 246 females), median age 69.6 years (interquartile range: 62.6 to 75.3 y), were assessed. Overall, 41/441 (9.3%) primary lung cancers were cystic at the time of diagnosis. The remaining showed solid (67%), part-solid (22%), and ground-glass (2%) morphologies. Histopathology of the cystic lung cancers at diagnosis included 31/41 (76%) adenocarcinomas, 8/41 (20%) squamous cell carcinomas, 1/41 (2%) adenosquamous carcinoma, and 1/41 (2%) unspecified non-small cell lung carcinoma. Overall, 8/34 (24%) cystic cancers at the time of diagnosis developed from different morphologic subtype precursor lesions, while 8/34 (24%) cystic precursor lesions also transitioned into part-solid or solid cancers at the time of diagnosis.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates that cystic airspaces within lung cancers are not uncommon, and may be seen transiently as cancers evolve. Increased awareness of the spectrum of cystic lung cancer morphology is important to improve diagnostic accuracy and lung cancer management.

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma*
  • Aged
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung*
  • Cysts* / diagnostic imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms* / diagnostic imaging
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed