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Symptoms of Lung Cancer

A majority of patients experience symptoms due to their lung cancer. Not many cases have come up where the individual does not experience any symptoms at all. On rare occasions, a tumor may be detected because a chest x-ray was carried out for some other issue not related to signs and symptoms associated with lung cancer.

Here, it would be worth remembering that a number of lung cancer symptoms are quite similar to those associated with other types of lung problems, for instance, bronchitis, pneumonia, and emphysema. Hence, experiencing one of more of these lung cancer-related symptoms does not always indicate the presence of lung cancer.

The symptoms associated with lung cancer can be classified into different groups based on the specific part of the body where the tumor has developed. Lung cancer symptoms can be due to one or more of the factors described below:

  • Presence of tumor in the chest or lungs
  • Tumor which has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body)
  • Indirect effects of tumor, for instance, fatigue and weight loss

Lung and chest symptoms – Most of these symptoms occur when the tumor starts pressing against the structures of the chest or when it starts to invade the organs located within the chest. One of the most common symptoms is cough. Other types of chest symptoms may include chest pain, shortness of breath, and wheezing. Symptoms that are less common include swelling, voice changes, shoulder pain and arm pain.

  • Cough – A new cough can present itself due to lung cancer. It can also lead to changes in the cough of an individual who may be experiencing cough for a long time (chronic cough). It may be a dry cough or can be characterized by the production of sputum (phlegm). Chronic cough can be a cause of concern when it transforms itself into more frequent or severe cough. Due to cancer, more sputum may be produced or it may become bloody. Any individual who coughs up clotted or bright red blood requires immediate medical help.
  • Chest Pain – This type of pain can present itself when the tumor starts to invade the ribs, the chest walls, or the lining around the lung. It can also be due to enlargement of the lymph nodes inside the chest or compression of the structures present in the center of the chest. This pain can be described in several different ways such as sharp, dull, vague, stabbing, and on certain occasions, only at the same spot.
  • Shortness of breath – This may develop in case the cancer narrows or blocks one of the breathing tubes or wind-pipe (referred to as a bronchus or the trachea). It can also be caused by the accumulation of fluid (due to tumor) in the lung, chest cavity or the area around the heart.
  • Wheezing – This refers to the whistling sound which develops in cases when the tumor narrows or blocks the airways.
  • Headache or swelling of the arms, neck or face – This may occur in case the tumor starts pressing against the large blood vessels as they make their way back into the chest.
  • Hoarseness of voice – This can happen when the tumor starts to press against the nerves surrounding the trachea that controls the voice box.
  • Pain in the arm or shoulder – This is caused by a tumor which develops at the top of the lungs and can also lead to neck pain and facial changes. The Pancoast syndrome may present itself when the tumor grows through the topmost part of the lung and starts to press against the nerves that control the face and arms. A variety of symptoms can present themselves such as arm or shoulder pain, weakened hand muscles (caused due to pressure on the nerves which control the arm), blurred vision or a droopy eyelid.

Symptoms of metastasis (cancer’s spread) – Lung cancer can metastasize, i.e. spread to other parts of the body. Sites where metastases most commonly occurs include liver, bones, adrenal glands, and brain.

Bone metastases can give rise to localized pain within the bone or could cause the bone to break, usually without any trauma. While any bone can be affected, bones which are more susceptible to metastasis include the ribs, spine, and pelvis.

Metastasis involving the liver may result in weakness, weight loss, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin). Brain metastasis can give rise to a variety of symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, headache, personality changes, seizures and confusion.

Indirect tumor symptoms – Due to lung cancer, specific substances may be produced and get dispersed within the body via the bloodstream. Symptoms that occur due to these substances are not directly associated with the lungs and are usually difficult to explain. These symptoms are known as “paraneoplastic syndromes”.

Only around 10 to 20 percent of lung cancer patients experience symptoms associated with a paraneoplastic syndrome. However, these symptoms need not imply that the tumor has metastasized or has become untreatable.

Some of the common paraneoplastic symptoms are described below:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite or a feeling of fullness after consuming small portions of food
  • Thickening or broadening of the fingernails (referred to as digital clubbing)
  • Swollen or painful joints
  • Muscle related symptoms such as stiffness, muscle weakness or pain
  • Enlargement of breast or release of milky substance from the nipples
  • Fever
  • Blood related symptoms such as blood clots, anemia, or changes in the blood cell numbers
  • Changes in blood pressure, either too low or too high
  • Increased level of calcium (referred to as hypercalcemia)
  • A reduction in the level of sodium present in the blood (referred to as hyponatremia)