Lung cancer may not produce any noticeable symptoms in the early stages, and many people aren’t diagnosed until the disease has advanced. Read on to learn more about lung cancer symptoms, what to watch out and listen for, and how early screening may help people at high risk for the disease.
Be on alert for a new cough that lingers. A cough associated with a cold or respiratory infection will go away in a week or two, but a persistent cough that lingers can be a symptom of lung cancer. Don’t be tempted to dismiss a stubborn cough, whether it’s dry or produces mucus. See your doctor right away. They will listen to your lungs and may order an X-ray or other tests.
Change in cough
Pay attention to any changes in a chronic cough, particularly if you smoke. If you’re coughing more often, your cough is deeper or sounds hoarse, or you’re coughing up blood or an unusual amount of mucus, 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. Changes in breathing 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 you find it difficult to breathe after climbing stairs or performing tasks you once found easy, don’t ignore it.
Lung cancer may produce pain in the chest, shoulders, or back. An aching feeling may not be associated with coughing. Tell your doctor if you notice any type of chest pain, whether it’s sharp, dull, constant, or intermittent. You should also note whether it’s confined to a specific area or occurring throughout your chest. When lung cancer causes chest pain, the discomfort may result from enlarged lymph nodes or metastasis to the chest wall, the lining around the lungs, called pleura, 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 symptom of lung cancer, which is why it merits your doctor’s attention. Don’t assume that wheezing is caused by asthma or allergies. Have your doctor confirm the cause.
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 may point to something more serious when it persists 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 drop in weight may result from cancer cells using energy. It could also result from shifts in the way the body uses energy from food.
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. It may be difficult to differentiate between bone and muscle pain. Bone pain is often worse at night and increases with movement.
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 are associated with brain metastases. Sometimes, a lung tumor may create pressure on the superior vena cava. This is the large vein that moves blood from the upper body to the heart. The pressure can also trigger headaches.
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 instances of 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 screenings. The recommendation applies to people who:
- have a 30 pack-year or more smoking history and currently smoke
- are between the ages of 55 and 80
- have smoked within the past 15 years
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with lung disease or meet any of the criteria that apply to people at high risk, talk with your doctor about whether low-dose CT screening is appropriate for you.
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. Receiving a low-dose CT screening could prove to be a very beneficial measure.