What Are Complications?

In the medical field, complications can refer to rare or unexpected circumstances that may occur in response to another health issue or error. With lung cancer and other lung diseases, complications can arise from how malignant tumors affect other areas of the body after spreading. Besides the potential for improving a prognosis, lung cancer primary treatments, complementary and emerging therapies can come with their own range of common and complex complications as well.

Issues Associated With Lung Cancer

It’s essential to know what can happen if you develop and are treated for lung tumors. Still, the following health complications don’t arise in every patient, even ones in similar situations. Only your doctor can assess your stage of illness, general health, and other factors to better determine what lung cancer complications you, specifically, may have.


Cancer can grow into areas that block airways, narrow passages, and cause difficulties breathing. This is also known as dyspnea.


Nearly a quarter of hemoptysis occurrences in the U.S. are caused by lung tumors. Hemoptysis also refers to the condition of spitting or coughing up blood from the lungs or bronchial tubes. Less than 10% of hemoptysis issues are considered massive.

Horners Syndrome

When tumors spread to the nerves in the neck or face, Horner’s syndrome can develop. This condition is classified by sagging eyelids, shrunk pupils, and lack of sweat on one side of the face.


Approximately 15% of people with general cancer develop high levels of calcium in the blood. This is known as hypercalcemia. While some patients go symptomless, some develop symptoms that can include vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue, and depression.


Sometimes the disease can spread enough that your body begins to retain water. If this happens and sodium levels drop too far, hyponatremia can occur. Symptoms of this condition can include confusion, fatigue, and rarely, seizures.

Malignant Pleural Effusion

When lung tumors form, they invade the space between the lung and chest wall (pleural area) and overcrowd it. When this happens, excessive fluid can fill the space, causing an illness called pleural effusion. Pleural effusion can cause discomfort in the chest and shortness of breath. There are some procedures that your doctor can perform to drain the fluid and stop it from building back up.

Pancoast’s Syndrome

When tumors impact the nerves that go from the neck into the shoulder/arms (brachial plexus), Pancoast’s syndrome can develop. Symptoms of this condition can include arm or hand numbness, weakness, or pain.

Spinal Cord Compression (SCC)

If tumors make their way to the spinal cord and cause excessive pressure, spinal cord compression can occur. This is a medical emergency, so if you begin to feel numb in the fingers and toes, have difficulty walking, or experience incontinence, visit a hospital immediately.

Superior Vena Cava Syndrome (SCVS)

When the disease has spread too far, tumors can press against the vein, causing a blockage (SCVS). This complication happens in less than 3.8% of patients with lung tumors. However, you should visit a doctor immediately if you discover swelling in the face or upper body as this would be an emergency medical situation. Other symptoms include chronic coughing and shortness of breath.

Venous Thromboembolism (VTE)

When lung cancer tumors take up space and overcrowd certain areas in the body, they can cause those areas to malfunction. This can cause further health issues like blocking a vein and causing blood clots (venous thromboembolism). There are two types, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) when the blood clot makes its way to a deeper vein like the leg. The second type of VTE is when the clot breaks off and heads to the lungs, also known as a pulmonary embolism. Your doctor can prescribe medications to help dissolve blood clots before they become an issue.

Complications From Lung Cancer Treatment

Sometimes treatments can cause issues or adverse effects in a patient, but every patient’s body reacts differently. Length of treatment, dosage, stage of the disease, and general health (including history) all factor into how a patient will respond to various therapies and treatments their doctor may prescribe. Some lung cancer complications that may arise from treatment include:

Lung Toxicity

Chemotherapy can sometimes cause lung toxicity. This condition has symptoms that include cough, fever, labored breathing, and hypoxemia (low oxygen in the blood).


Sometimes a doctor may utilize lymph node removal via surgery or radiation for treatment. When this treatment is administered, painful swelling may occur due to lymphatic fluid building up from lack of circulation (lymphedema).


Chemotherapies can sometimes cause a numb or tingling sensation in hands and feet, referred to as peripheral neuropathy. If the tumors spread far enough to damage the nerves, this can also cause neuropathy.


Chemotherapy and radiation treatments can’t distinguish between healthy cells and cancer cells. When this happens, white blood cells and cancer cells are killed, causing neutropenia or higher infection risk since white blood cells fight infection. Doctors can prescribe antibiotics to combat this issue.


Radiation can occasionally cause upper respiratory lung infections. When one or both lungs become inflamed, pneumonia can occur. More specifically, this complication happens when the lung’s air sacs (alveoli) fill up with fluid or pus. This causes flu-like symptoms like severe cough, fever, and weakness that can last for weeks.

Next Steps

Make sure to contact your doctor immediately if you experience any lung cancer complications from illness or treatment. They’ll be able to give you recommendations and prescribe your medications to help alleviate pain and discomfort.