What Are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer?

Understanding the symptoms of a disease can help detect it earlier. Lung cancer often has symptoms that can be mistaken for less-fatal illnesses. At times, people do not realize anything is wrong until the disease is in its later, more-aggressive stages. The most common early warning signs of lung cancer are:

  • Fatigue
  • Infection in the lungs (i.e. bronchitis, pneumonia)
  • Lack of appetite
  • Persistent cough, occasionally with blood
  • Persistent chest, back, and shoulder pain that worsens when coughing, breathing deep, or laughing
  • Shortness of breath during everyday activities
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Hoarseness

Advanced-Stage Symptoms

Typically, when lung cancer has advanced to a certain point, symptoms become more severe. Symptoms differ between people, however. Advanced stages of lung cancer can cause the following issues:

  • Bone pain
  • Jaundice
  • Lumps in the neck or collarbone area
  • Swelling of the face, arms, or neck

Symptoms of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Usually, medical professionals group lung cancer into two main types, even though there are a few other types of NSCLC tumors (large cell, adenocarcinoma, squamous cell). This is because the two major types account for over 95 percent of patients. These two main types are known as small cell and non-small cell lung cancer and differ in how a doctor may treat them, as well as their tumor growth patterns. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common of the two types, making up for at least 80 percent to 85 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses.
This is an image showing that the two major types account for over 95 percent of patients.
NSCLC consists of three subtypes. These are adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma. Less common subtypes of NSCLC include adenosquamous and sarcomatoid carcinoma. Non-small cell lung cancer tends to grow slowly over time before symptoms are noticed. Those include:

  • Bone pain
  • Chronic coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Hemoptysis (cough that produces blood or red phlegm)
  • Painful breathing
  • Shortness of breath

Symptoms of Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)

The development of small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is grouped into two stages: limited and extensive. These stages apply to all subtypes of SCLC (oat cell carcinoma) During the limited phase, tumors have only developed in one lung and possibly lymph nodes on one side of the chest. In the extensive stage (usually stages 3 and 4), tumors have metastasized from one lung to the other, as well as the lymph nodes and possibly even other organs.

Small cell lung cancer symptoms don’t develop until more progressed stages. Some signs of SCLC are:

  • A persistent cough that can bring up blood
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss

Symptoms in Other Areas of the Body

When lung cancer metastasizes (i.e. grows and spreads) to other parts of the body, it can cause issues and symptoms in those areas as well.

  • Lumps – If cancer makes it to the lymph nodes, tumors near the skin’s surface may look like lumps.
  • Horner syndrome – When tumors cause nerve damage, symptoms could affect one side of the face. Droopy eyelids or pupil reduction may occur.
  • Paraneoplastic syndrome – Sometimes cancer can produce chemicals that force other reactions in particular areas of the body. This can evoke high blood calcium levels (hypercalcemia), blood clots, or excessive bone growth.
  • Superior vena cava syndrome – Also known as SVC, the superior vena cava is a vein that moves blood from the head and arms to the heart. It also passes the upper part of the right lung and lymph nodes. Tumors can push on the SVC and cause blood to back up into the veins. In turn, this can generate swelling in the face, neck, arms, and upper chest. Other symptoms include a bluish skin color.
  • Metastases – Sometimes lung cancer can spread to the bones, liver, brain, or spinal cord.
  • Bone – If cancer moves to the bones, it can cause pain in the ribs or vertebrae. This can also cause fractures, constipation, and loss of ability to focus.
  • Liver – When tumors make it to the liver, nausea, fatigue, swelling of the abdominal and hands, yellowing, or itchy skin can occur.
  • Nervous System – Cancer spreading to either the brain or spinal cord may cause chronic headaches, blurred or double vision, speech issues, or seizures

Talk to a Doctor

If you or someone you know have developed any symptoms mentioned, see a doctor immediately. They can analyze your situation and see if you are at risk for lung cancer. If they determine there’s a risk, they will give you a screening. If the doctor detects lung cancer, they’ll give you their diagnosis, or formal medical analysis of your illness, a prognosis (survival rate) including suggestions on how you may be able to improve your prognosis.