Signs & Symptoms of Lung Cancer
Unfortunately, lung cancer can affect anyone, not just smokers or people who live with smokers. In fact, a good 20% of lung cancer diagnoses are among people who have never smoked at all. Whatever your history is regarding smoking, it’s important to know the common symptoms associated with lung cancer so you can catch it as early as possible.
Early Symptoms of Lung Cancer
In many cases, lung cancer symptoms don’t usually present themselves until the cancer has become more advanced. Some people, unfortunately, go misdiagnosed for a long time because their symptoms are similar to other diagnoses such as pneumonia, allergies or a cold. If you feel that something is wrong, be persistent with your doctor. You know your body best and being persistent could save your life.
As with most cancers, the sooner lung cancer is caught and treated, the higher the survival rate. Because of this, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor if you are experiencing one or more of the following:
- A lingering cough (unless you’ve had a recent respiratory illness)
- Difficulty breathing
- New onset of wheezing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Blood appearing in your phlegm or spit when you cough, even trace amounts
- Tightness or pain in the chest that worsens with coughing, deep breathing, or laughing
- General fatigue when you do even just a little bit of activity
- A feeling of weakness during normal activities
- Recurring respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia that don't seem like they want to heal
Advanced Signs of Lung Cancer
Once cancer starts to spread, the symptoms usually change. Some signs attributed to advanced lung cancer can include:
- Bone pain
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
- Lumps in the neck and/or collarbone area
- Dizziness, headaches; whole body weakness
Syndromes Caused By Lung Cancer
A syndrome is a group of specific symptoms that can be caused by something like lung cancer. With that said, syndromes can affect other organs of the body. Therefore, it’s possible your doctor may misdiagnose, thinking it’s related to something other than lung cancer. These syndromes include:
- Horner syndrome: A condition in which one side of the face is flushed, does not produce sweat, and has a constricted pupil and drooping eyelid. This happens when there is a disruption of the nerve pathway that travels from the brain >> face >> eye on one side of the head.
- Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS): A condition in which a tumor presses against the superior vena cava (the large vein that carries blood from the head, neck, arms, and chest to the heart). This can result in difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and coughing, in addition to possible swelling of the face, neck, and upper body, including the arms where the blood may be gathering.
- Paraneoplastic syndromes: These rare disorders are thought to happen when cancer-fighting antibodies or white blood cells (known as T cells) mistakenly attack normal cells in the nervous system. They are triggered by substances produced and secreted by the tumor. These hormone-like substances affect distant tissues and organs, even though the cancer itself has not spread to those same areas. Because these substances could impact anywhere, there is no one set of symptoms, but some of the most common for this rare condition are:
- Blood clots
- SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone)
- Excess growth or thickening of certain bones
- Cushing syndrome
- Hypercalcemia (high blood calcium levels)
- Nervous system problems
- Gynecomastia (excess breast growth in men)
When to See Your Doctor
The appearance of any symptoms like the ones listed above, or, anything that seems out of the ordinary, should be brought to the attention of your primary care physician so he or she can assess your condition. They are likely to take some images and blood tests as well as run other tests to see if there is another lung condition causing the symptoms or if you might need to be evaluated by a lung cancer specialist.
If it is lung cancer, identifying it early on will give you a better chance of stopping it while it’s smaller and more isolated. Treatment will likely be more aggressive if it has already spread past the lung.