Lung cancer may not produce any noticeable symptoms in the early stages, and many people aren’t diagnosed until the disease has advanced. But some early signs and symptoms may be seen in some people.
Read on to learn about early lung cancer signs and symptoms, and how early screening may help people at high risk for the disease.
Note that these symptoms can overlap with other conditions, many of them very common and mild.
1. A cough that won’t quit or changes
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 so, but a persistent cough that lingers can be a symptom of lung cancer.
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 reach out to a doctor.
2. Breathing changes or wheezing
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.
When your airways become constricted, blocked, or inflamed, your lungs may produce a wheezing or whistling sound when you breathe. This can have multiple causes, some of which are benign and easily treatable.
3. Body pain
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.
Lung cancer that has spread to your bones may produce pain in your back or in other areas of your body. Bone pain is often worse at night and increases with movement.
Headaches may be a sign that lung cancer has metastasized (spread) to the brain. However, not all headaches are associated with brain metastases.
4. Raspy, hoarse voice
If you hear a significant change in your voice, or if someone else points out that your voice sounds deeper, hoarse, or raspier, reach out to your doctor.
A simple cold can cause hoarseness, but this symptom may point to something more serious when it persists.
Hoarseness related to lung cancer can occur when the tumor affects the nerve that controls the larynx, or voice box.
5. Drop in weight
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.
SCLC usually has no early symptoms, but when it spreads within the lung or to other parts of your body, you may experience the following:
- bloody mucus
- shortness of breath or wheezing
- chest pain
- persistent cough
- loss of appetite
- facial swelling
You should contact your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms.
In advanced stages of lung cancer, the cancer usually metastasizes to both lungs and other organs, such as the bones or brain.
The symptoms of advanced lung cancer may include the following:
- breathing difficulties
- persistent coughing
- loss of appetite
If lung cancer has spread to other organs, you may have symptoms such as fractures if it’s spread to your bones or vision issues if it’s spread to your brain.
Lung cancer may cause groups of certain symptoms that are known as syndromes. Some of the most common are Horner’s syndrome, superior vena cava syndrome, and paraneoplastic syndrome.
Tumors in the upper part of the lungs, which are referred to as Pancoast tumors, may cause symptoms by affecting the nerves in your face and eyes. These symptoms are collectively known as Horner’s syndrome.
The symptoms of Horner’s syndrome may include:
- a drooping or weakened upper eyelid
- a smaller pupil in that eye
- little or no sweating on that side of your face
- extreme shoulder pain
Superior vena cava syndrome
Tumors in your upper right lung may put pressure on your superior vena cava, a large vein that carries blood from your head and arms to your heart. The pressure may cause blood to back up in your veins.
The symptoms of superior vena cava syndrome may include:
- swelling in your face, neck, arms, and upper chest, sometimes making your skin turn bluish-red
- dizziness or loss of consciousness
It’s very important to talk with a doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms, since superior vena cava syndrome can be life threatening.
Some lung cancers produce hormones that travel through your bloodstream to distant organs and tissues, causing problems known as paraneoplastic syndromes.
These syndromes are more common with SCLC. They may be the first symptoms of lung cancer.
The following are some common paraneoplastic syndromes:
- Syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone (SIADH). SIADH occurs if lung cancer produces the hormone ADH, which causes your kidneys to hold water, resulting in lower blood salt levels. The symptoms may include fatigue, muscle weakness, and nausea.
- Cushing’s syndrome. If lung cancer releases the hormone ACTH, your adrenal glands will produce high levels of cortisol, which is referred to as Cushing’s syndrome. This may lead to symptoms including weight gain, drowsiness, and high blood pressure.
- Lamber-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LAMS). LAMS may occur if lung cancer causes your immune system to attack areas of your nervous system. The muscles around your hips may be weakened, making it difficult to stand from a seated position.
- Humoral hypercalcemia of malignancy (HHM). Any kind of tumor can cause this oversecretion of parathyroid hormone-related peptide (PTHrP). Squamous carcinomas are most commonly the cause.
If lung cancer is detected at an early stage, when there typically are no symptoms, it’s more likely to be successfully treated.
Low-dose computer tomography (LDCT) scans have been found to save more lives than chest X-rays when they’re used to screen people with a higher risk for lung cancer.
LDCT scans, which use low amounts of radiation, help identify abnormal areas in the lungs that could indicate cancer.
The American Cancer Society’s lung cancer screening guidelines recommend annual LDCT scans for higher-risk people between the ages of 55 and 74 who meet each of the following conditions:
- currently smoke or have smoked within the past 15 years
- have a 30-pack-a-year or more smoking history (the number of years you smoked multiplied by the packs of cigarettes smoked each day)
- receive counseling to help quit if a current smoker
- told by their healthcare provider of the benefits and harms of LDCT scans
- have access to a facility that performs lung cancer screening
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms associated with lung cancer or meet the criteria that apply to people at high risk, talk with your doctor about whether LDCT scans are appropriate for you.
About 75 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer have already reached stage 3 or 4 of the disease. Receiving a low-dose CT screening could prove to be a very beneficial measure.
Lung cancer is serious, but new, more effective treatments are being researched every day.
Talking with your doctor about your risks and any symptoms will give you the best outlook.