Lung cancer may not produce any noticeable symptoms in the early stages. In approximately 40 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer, the diagnosis is made after the disease has advanced. In one third of those diagnosed, the cancer has reached stage 3. Read more to learn about lung cancer symptoms, what to watch and listen out for, and how early screening may help people at high risk for the disease.
Be on alert for a new cough that lingers. While a cough associated with a cold or respiratory infection will go away in a week or two, a persistent cough that lingers can be a possible sign of lung cancer. Don’t be tempted to dismiss a stubborn cough, whether it is dry or mucus-producing, as “just a cough.” See your doctor right away. He or she will listen to your lungs and may order an X-ray or other tests.
Pay attention to any changes in a chronic cough, particularly if you are a smoker. If you are coughing more often, your cough has a deeper or hoarse sound, or you are coughing up blood or more mucus than usual, it’s time to make a doctor’s appointment. If a family member or friend experiences these changes, suggest that they visit their doctor.
Shortness of breath or becoming easily winded are also possible symptoms of lung cancer. This symptom can occur if lung cancer blocks or narrows an airway, or if fluid from a lung tumor builds up in the chest. Make a point of noticing when you feel winded or short of breath. If this symptom occurs after climbing the stairs to your house, bringing in groceries, or performing another task you could previously do without finding it hard to breathe, don’t ignore it.
Lung cancer may produce pain in the chest, shoulder, or back area. This aching feeling may not be associated with coughing. Tell your doctor if you notice any type of chest pain, whether it is sharp, dull, constant, or comes and goes. You should also note whether it is confined to a specific area or is occurring throughout your chest. When lung cancer causes chest pain, the discomfort may result from enlarged lymph nodes or metastasis to the chest wall, pleura (lining around the lungs), or the ribs.
When airways become constricted, blocked, or inflamed, the lungs produce a wheezing or whistling sound when you breathe. Wheezing can be associated with multiple causes, some of which are benign and easily treatable. However, wheezing is also a lung cancer symptom, which is why it merits your doctor’s attention. If wheezing continues, don’t assume it’s asthma or allergies. Have your doctor confirm what’s causing it.
If you hear a significant change in your voice, or if someone else points out that your voice sounds deeper, hoarse, or raspier, get checked out by your doctor. Hoarseness can be caused by a simple cold, but this symptom becomes worrisome when it hangs on for more than two weeks. Hoarseness related to lung cancer can occur when the tumor affects the nerve that controls the larynx, or voice box.
An unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more may be associated with lung cancer or another type of cancer. When cancer is present, this weight drop may result from cancer cells using energy in the body. It could also result from shifts in the way the body uses food energy. Don’t write off a change in your weight if you haven’t been trying to shed pounds—it may be a clue to a change in your health.
Lung cancer that has spread to the bones may produce pain in the back or in other areas of the body. This pain may worsen at night while resting on the back. Additionally, lung cancer is sometimes associated with shoulder, arm, or neck pain, although this is less common. Be attentive to your aches and pains, and discuss them with your doctor.
Headaches may be a sign that lung cancer has spread to the brain. However, not all headaches in people with lung cancer are associated with brain metastases. Sometimes, a lung tumor may create pressure on the superior vena cava, which is the large vein that moves blood from the upper body to the heart. This pressure can also trigger headaches.
Chest X-rays are not effective in detecting early-stage lung cancer. However, low-dose computed tomography (CT) scans have been shown to reduce lung cancer mortality by 20 percent, according to a 2011 study. In the study, 53,454 people at high risk for lung cancer were randomly assigned either a low-dose CT scan or an X-ray. The low-dose CT scans detected more lung cancer. There were also significantly fewer deaths from the disease in the low-dose CT group.
The study prompted the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to issue a draft recommendation that people at high risk for lung cancer receive low-dose CT screening. The recommendation applies only to people who:
- have a 30-pack year or more history of smoking
- are ages 55 to 79
- have smoked within the past 15 years
Talk with your doctor about whether low-dose CT screening is appropriate for you.