Symptoms of lung cancer vary depending on whether the disease is in its early or late stages.
In early stage (stage 1 and stage 2) lung cancer, the cancerous tumor is typically no bigger than 2 inches and hasn’t spread to your lymph nodes. Minor symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath, may appear during this time. Or you may not notice any symptoms at all.
Once the tumor grows larger than 2 inches, or spreads beyond your lung to your lymph nodes or other organs, the disease is usually considered late stage (stage 3 and stage 4). During these stages, you’re more likely to have noticeable symptoms.
It’s important to note that symptoms of lung cancer are similar to symptoms of other lung diseases. Keep reading to learn what these symptoms are. If you experience any of them, you should see your doctor for a medical evaluation.
Coughing allows your body to expel irritants from your throat or airway by pushing a burst of air into your lungs. An intense, persistent, or consistently worsening cough can indicate lung cancer. It’s a common symptom of many other conditions as well. See your doctor right away if you cough up blood or bloody mucus and phlegm.
Dyspnea is sometimes described as a tightness in the chest or an inability to take a big breath. Large tumors or the spread of lung cancer can cause blockages in your major airways as well as fluid buildup around your lungs. This buildup is called a pleural effusion. Pleural effusion can lead to shortness of breath and chest pain, common symptoms of lung cancer. If any shortness of breath you’re experiencing is new or constant, or interferes with your daily life, see your doctor.
Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling that can occur when you breathe in or out. It’s caused by constricted air passages. Although this is a common symptom of asthma, wheezing may be the result of a lung tumor. Contact your doctor if your wheezing is new, audible, or associated with other symptoms like shortness of breath.
Your vocal chords produce sound by opening and closing, causing vibrations. When lung cancer involves the laryngeal nerve, it can affect your vocal cords and may cause a change or hoarseness in your voice.
Hoarseness is a common symptom of many conditions, most commonly laryngitis. If your hoarseness lasts for two or more weeks, see your doctor.
Fatigue is a constant worn-down feeling. With lung cancer, your body works overtime to try to fight the attack of cancer. This can drain your energy, making you feel tired and lethargic.
Fatigue may become more pronounced as lung cancer advances. If fatigue begins to interfere with your life, contact your doctor.
A fever indicates that something abnormal is happening in your body. When you’re sick, your temperature rises above its normal temperature of 98.6°F (37°C). This is the body’s attempt to minimize heat loss and fight off infection. See your doctor if a fever gets too high or doesn’t go away in a few days.
When tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in your body are damaged or undergo pressure, they leak fluid. Your kidney responds by retaining water and salt to compensate for the loss. This excess fluid causes the capillaries to leak even more fluid. Your lymph nodes work to clear excess fluid from your body. Cancer can block or damage your lymph nodes, preventing them from doing their job. This can result in swelling of your neck, face, and arms. Contact your doctor if you’re concerned about any swelling you may be experiencing.
Other symptoms of lung cancer include:
- pain in your shoulders or back
- constant chest pain
- frequent or recurring lung infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis
- unintended weight loss
- loss of appetite
Other symptoms may occur once the cancer has spread to different parts of your body, or metastasized. These include:
- bone and joint pain
- headache or seizures
- unsteadiness or memory loss
- weakness or numbness of your arms and legs
- blood clots
- lumps near the surface of your skin, especially enlarged lymph nodes
When it spreads, lung cancer can sometimes literally strike a nerve. This can cause a group of symptoms to develop. Together, the symptoms are referred to as a syndrome.
Horner syndrome occurs when a tumor forms in the upper part of your lung. This damages a nerve that passes from your upper chest to your neck and can cause severe neck or shoulder pain. Other symptoms of this syndrome may affect one side of your face. These include:
- ptosis, a drooping or weakness of one eyelid
- smaller pupil size in one eye
- anhidrosis, reduced or absent sweating on one side of your face
Superior vena cava syndrome
Superior vena cava syndrome occurs when the vein that brings blood back to your heart becomes blocked. It can be caused by a cancerous tumor putting pressure on the vein or blocking it entirely, which leads to symptoms such as:
- swelling and discoloration in your neck or face
- difficulty swallowing
Some lung cancers can cause paraneoplastic syndrome. This is a rare group of symptoms caused when cancer cells or your body’s immunity cells produce hormones or other substances that affect other organs or tissue. These symptoms are sometimes the first evidence of cancer. However, they often confuse or delay a lung cancer diagnosis because they occur outside of your lungs. Symptoms can affect many parts of your body, including the:
- musculoskeletal system
- endocrine system
- gastrointestinal tract
- nervous system
Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of lung cancer. Having someone in your family with lung cancer significantly increases your risk even if you aren’t a smoker. The risk is highest if your parent or sibling has had the disease.
Your risk also increases with exposure to certain things in your environment, such as:
- secondhand smoke
- radon gas, which can reach high levels inside buildings (and can be measured with a radon testing kit)
- asbestos, which is found in many old buildings
- carcinogens, including arsenic or nickel
Your doctor may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose lung cancer:
- Biopsy: Your doctor takes a small sample of tissue from your lungs to test for cancerous cells.
- Imaging tests: X-rays or CT scans check for lesions in your lungs.
- Sputum cytology: Your doctor examines a sample of sputum (material that you cough up) under a microscope.
- Bronchoscopy: An instrument with a camera and light lets your doctor examine the inside of your lungs for abnormalities and collect cells for microscopic examination.
If you’re at high risk of developing lung cancer, ask your doctor if a screening CT scan is warranted. An early diagnosis improves the prognosis for people who smoked for a long time and continue to smoke or have quit within the past 10 years.
Some lung diseases have symptoms that overlap significantly with those of lung cancer, such as:
- serious flu infections
- asthma, a long-term lung inflammation that can make it hard for you to breathe
- bronchitis, an inflammation of your airways
- tuberculosis, an infection of your lungs
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that can block your airways and includes conditions such as emphysema
- cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects your respiratory system
Ask your doctor about these conditions if you have any of the following symptoms:
- persistent or chronic cough
- bloody cough
- persistent sweating
Lung cancer has the highest mortality rate of all cancers in the U.S. If you’re diagnosed and treated in the early stages of the disease, you have a chance of successful treatment.
If you have any symptoms of lung cancer, see your doctor right away to ensure early diagnosis. If you smoke, consider quitting. This is the most important risk-reducing step you can take.