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Signs & Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Especially in today’s pandemic world, most people don’t think about lung cancer when they have a cough or shortness of breath. But, if you’ve tested negative for COVID-19 and don’t have a cold or the regular flu, there could be something else going on.

Lung cancer can technically occur in anyone, not just smokers or people who live with smokers. It may surprise you to learn that as many as 20% of people who develop lung cancer have never smoked. Whether you have a history of smoking or not, it’s good to know what types of symptoms come with lung cancer so you can catch it as early as possible. As with most cancers, survival rates are higher when treatment begins sooner.

What Are the Early Symptoms of Lung Cancer?

Most people don’t notice any major lung cancer signs or symptoms until it’s become more advanced. That's because the body will try to compensate for these symptoms as long as it can and manage the abnormal cellular growth until it can't anymore. But if you're aware of the possible signs, you're more likely to notice them if they should occur. You might have a subtle cough or shortness of breath when you don't have a condition like cold or flu that could explain it. These subtle symptoms get more noticeable as the cancer cells multiply.

Even if you don't think you have typical risk factors like a history of smoking or exposure to harsh chemicals and construction materials, we recommend that you speak with your primary care physician if, for an unexplainable reason, you experience early lung cancer signs and symptoms that include one or more of the following:

  • Hoarseness with no sore throat or drainage
  • Trouble breathing
  • A cough that won't go away – unless you've had, COVID, a cold or the flu recently
  • Wheezing when that's not something you've done before
  • Blood appearing in your phlegm or spit when you cough, even trace amounts
  • You've recently lost weight when you weren't trying to
  • You feel a tightness or pain in your chest that feels worse when you cough, breathe deeply, or even laugh. NOTE: Any sort of intense, sharp pain in your chest should be assessed immediately.
  • General fatigue when you do even just a little bit of activity
  • A feeling of weakness during normal activities
  • Respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia that keeps coming back and don't seem like they want to heal

What Are More Advanced Lung Cancer Signs and Symptoms?

Cancer may start in one part of the body, but as it advances, it usually spreads. When you hear someone speaking about Stage I (1), Stage II (2) lung cancer, etc., that is a statement of how much cancer has spread past the lungs. So at Stage III (3) and IV (4), the cancer is likely noticeably impacting more than one other organ. That means that on top of lung cancer signs and symptoms, you'll experience symptoms that seem unrelated but are connected to the cancer spread.

In addition to the other symptoms already mentioned, you might also experience some of the following:

  • Achy bones that suggest it may have spread to the bone marrow
  • Jaundice--a yellowing of the eyes and skin that suggests it's in your liver
  • Neck lumps, which may suggest it's in your lymphatic system (lymph nodes)
  • Headaches, whole body weakness, dizziness

What Are Lung Cancer-Caused Syndromes?

A syndrome is a set of commonly related and specific symptoms caused by something like lung cancer. Like other cancers, lung cancer has a set of symptoms that those with it may experience. To better understand diagnosis and treatment, doctors have given these sets of symptoms, a name when they occur together.

  • Horner syndrome: A host of symptoms that happen when the nerve pathway that travels from the brain >> face >> eye on one side of the head is disturbed. This may lead to a drooping or weak eye on one side. Other people may also notice that your pupil looks smaller in that eye, and you may be unable to sweat on that side.
  • Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS): In this case, the main vein that takes blood back to the heart after dropping off oxygen and nutrients in the arms--known as the vena cava--becomes partially blocked or pinched. Because of it, you may experience trouble 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: This one is rare! It happens when the tumor secretes a hormone-like substance that triggers other tissues and organs. Hormones are powerful body regulators, so if something like hormones is telling cells in other parts of the body to do things, they listen and respond. These other tissues often have no signs of cancer, except that the hormone-like substance is interfering with their signals. These hormone-like substances affect distant tissues and organs, even though 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 is for this rare condition are:
    • Cushing syndrome
    • SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone)
    • Excess growth or thickening of certain bones
    • Hypercalcemia (high blood calcium levels)
    • Nervous system problems
    • Blood clots
    • Gynecomastia (excess breast growth in men)

What to Do If You Notice Lung Cancer Symptoms

As we stated above, if you notice the early warning signs or anything that seems out of the ordinary, you should see your primary care physician so she or he 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.

When cancer is identified early, you have a better chance of stopping cancer while it's smaller and more isolated. If it spreads past the lungs, treatment must often be more aggressive to stop the spread.

If you should receive a lung cancer diagnosis, schedule an appointment with one of our oncologists at Affiliated Oncologists serving the Chicagoland area. We are also available to provide second opinions if you have already received a diagnosis and treatment plan.