Search Journal-type in search term and press enter
Social Media-Follow Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care on Facebook and Twitter
« Medical Image of the Month: Chronic Ogilvieā€™s Syndrome | Main | November 2018 Imaging Case of the Month: Respiratory Failure in a 36-Year-Old Woman »

Medical Image of the Month: Malignant Pleural and Pericardial Effusions

Figure 1. CTA chest axial view showing moderate pericardial effusion, bilateral pleural effusions and an anterior mediastinal mass.


Figure 2. Echocardiography subcostal four-chambered view showing a large pericardial effusion with right ventricular collapse during diastole.


A 67-year-old woman with a history of presumed thymoma presented to the emergency department with four weeks of progressive shortness of breath and wheezing. CT imaging of the chest on arrival demonstrated a 13.1 x 8.6 x 8.2 cm anterior mediastinal mass with compression of the SVC, pulmonary veins, and right pulmonary artery (Figure 1). A moderate pericardial effusion was also seen. A transthoracic echocardiogram was performed to further evaluate the pericardial effusion, which revealed diastolic collapse of the right ventricle consistent with cardiac tamponade (Figure 2). The patient was taken for urgent pericardiocentesis, which drained 450cc of sanguineous fluid. Percutaneous biopsy of the mass revealed poorly differentiated carcinoma suspicious for a primary breast malignancy. Cytology of the pericardial fluid did not demonstrate malignancy, however. Cytology of subsequent pleural effusion also was not positive for malignancy, although, both effusions are believed to be related to the malignancy even if no malignant cells were present on analysis.

Malignant pericardial effusions account for 18-23% of cases, and are one of the most common causes of hemorrhagic effusions. Multiple types of cancers can involve the pericardium; lung cancer is the most common but lymphoma, leukemia, melanoma, and breast cancer are other potentially causative malignancies. Presence of a symptomatic malignant effusion is a poor prognostic indicator with median survival on the order of 2-4 months after diagnosis, although certain malignancies (e.g. hematologic rather than solid) may have better results (1).

Nathan Coffman MD and Jessica Vondrak MD

Department of Internal Medicine

Banner University Medical Center

University of Arizona

Tucson, AZ USA


  1. Dequanter D, Lothaire P, Berghmans T, Sculier JP. Severe pericardial effusion in patients with concurrent malignancy: a retrospective analysis of prognostic factors influencing survival. Ann Surg Oncol. 2008 Nov;15(11):3268-71. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 

Cite as: Coffman N, Vondrak J. Medical image of the month: Malignant pleural and pericardial effusions. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2018;17(5): . doi: PDF 

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>