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Lung Cancer Complications

How do complications arise?

Key points

  1. If you have lung cancer, complications can arise as the disease progresses.
  2. Complications often occur as the cancer spreads to other parts of the body.
  3. Treatments can help with symptoms and related pain from complications.

As lung cancer progresses, it can cause complications. Complications can result from the cancer spreading to other areas of your body or as a side effect of your treatment plan.

Effects on the lungs

Lung cancer can cause blockages in your major airways. It can also cause the buildup of fluid around the lungs, called a pleural effusion. This may result in pain and shortness of breath.

Large tumors or pleural effusions can compress the lungs, decrease lung function, and increase your risk of pneumonia. Pneumonia symptoms include cough, chest pain, and fever. If untreated, a case of pneumonia can have life-threatening consequences.

People with lung cancer may also experience hemoptysis, or bloody sputum, when they cough. This is due to bleeding in the airways. Treatments are available to help control cancer-related hemoptysis.

Neuropathy

Neuropathy is a disorder that affects the nerves, mainly of the hands and feet. Lung cancer that grows near the nerves in the arm or shoulder can compress the nerves and cause pain and weakness. Cancer treatments can also cause neuropathy. When the cancer or its treatment damages these nerves, it can cause symptoms such as:

  • tingling
  • numbness
  • weakness
  • pain

Medications are available to help control or alleviate symptoms of neuropathy.

If cancer in the lungs grows into the nerves of the neck or face it can lead to Horner syndrome, a condition in which the eye on one side of the face has a droopy eyelid. There may be constriction of the pupil of the affected eye and a lack of sweating on the affected side of the face.

Tumors in the chest can also affect the nerves that are connected to the voice box, causing hoarseness and voice changes.

Pain

Pain can occur in the ribs or chest muscles or other parts of the body where lung cancer has spread. This usually happens in more advanced stages of the disease. Treating the cancer may help with these symptoms. Pain can also be managed with medication and radiation.

Other complications

Lung cancer can cause problems by affecting other body organs, such as the heart and esophagus.

Heart complications

If tumors grow near the heart or major vessels, they can compress or block the veins and arteries. This can cause swelling in upper parts of the body, such as:

  • chest
  • neck
  • face

This swelling can lead to further complications, including:

  • vision problems
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • fatigue

Tumors near the heart can also upset the heart’s normal rhythm or cause a buildup of fluid around the heart.

Esophagus complications

If the lung cancer grows near the esophagus, you may have trouble swallowing or experience more pain when food passes through the esophagus on the way to the stomach.

Spread of cancer

Lung cancer can spread to other parts of the body. This spread is called metastasis. It can cause significant side effects depending on the area it spreads to. Common sites of metastasis are:

  • brain
  • liver
  • bones
  • glands

Long-term outlook

Complications from lung cancer can occur as the disease progresses or as a result of treatment. It’s important to know the symptoms and signs of these complications so you can get early intervention.

The survival rate of people with lung cancer depends on the stage of the disease. People whose lung cancer is diagnosed and treated in the early stages have better chance of surviving their cancer. Most cases of lung cancer are diagnosed at later stages because symptoms that lead to diagnosis usually don’t occur until the cancer is advanced.

Individual outlook will depend on several factors. If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, talk to your doctor to get a better idea of your outlook.

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