Signs and symptoms of lung cancer
Most lung cancers do not cause any symptoms until they have spread, but some people with early lung cancer do have symptoms. If you go to your doctor when you first notice symptoms, your cancer might be diagnosed at an earlier stage, when treatment is more likely to be effective. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:
- A cough that does not go away or gets worse
- Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
- Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling tired or weak
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
- New onset of wheezing
If lung cancer spreads to distant organs, it may cause:
- Bone pain (like pain in the back or hips)
- Nervous system changes (such as headache, weakness or numbness of an arm or leg, dizziness, balance problems, or seizures), from cancer spread to the brain or spinal cord
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), from cancer spread to the liver
- Lumps near the surface of the body, due to cancer spreading to the skin or to lymph nodes (collections of immune system cells), such as those in the neck or above the collarbone
Most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
Some lung cancers can cause syndromes, which are groups of very specific symptoms.
Cancers of the top part of the lungs (sometimes called Pancoast tumors) sometimes can affect certain nerves to the eye and part of the face, causing a group of symptoms called Horner syndrome:
- Drooping or weakness of one eyelid
- A smaller pupil (dark part in the center of the eye) in the same eye
- Reduced or absent sweating on the same side of the face
- Pancoast tumors can also sometimes cause severe shoulder pain.
Superior vena cava syndrome
The superior vena cava (SVC) is a large vein that carries blood from the head and arms back to the heart. It passes next to the upper part of the right lung and the lymph nodes inside the chest. Tumors in this area can press on the SVC, which can cause the blood to back up in the veins. This can lead to swelling in the face, neck, arms, and upper chest (sometimes with a bluish-red skin color). It can also cause headaches, dizziness, and a change in consciousness if it affects the brain. While SVC syndrome can develop gradually over time, in some cases it can become life-threatening, and needs to be treated right away.
Some lung cancers can make hormone-like substances that enter the bloodstream and cause problems with distant tissues and organs, even though the cancer has not spread to those tissues or organs. These problems are called paraneoplastic syndromes. Sometimes these syndromes can be the first symptoms of lung cancer. Because the symptoms affect organs other than the lungs, patients and their doctors may suspect at first that a disease other than lung cancer is causing them.
Some of the more common paraneoplastic syndromes associated with lung cancer are:
- SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone): In this condition, the cancer cells make a hormone (ADH) that causes the kidneys to retain water. This lowers salt levels in the blood. Symptoms of SIADH can include fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle weakness or cramps, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, and confusion. Without treatment, severe cases may lead to seizures and coma.
- Cushing syndrome: In this condition, the cancer cells may make ACTH, a hormone that causes the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. This can lead to symptoms such as weight gain, easy bruising, weakness, drowsiness, and fluid retention. Cushing syndrome can also cause high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels (or even diabetes).
- Nervous system problems: Lung cancer can sometimes cause the body’s immune system to attack parts of the nervous system, which can lead to problems. One example is a muscle disorder called the Lambert-Eaton syndrome, in which the muscles around the hips become weak. One of the first signs may be trouble getting up from a sitting position. Later, muscles around the shoulder may become weak. A rarer problem is paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration, which can cause loss of balance and unsteadiness in arm and leg movement, as well as trouble speaking or swallowing.
- High blood calcium levels (hypercalcemia): This can cause frequent urination, thirst, constipation, nausea, vomiting, belly pain, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, and other nervous system problems
- Excess growth or thickening of certain bones: This is often in the finger tips, and can be painful.
- Blood clots
- Excess breast growth in men (gynecomastia)
Again, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
Last Medical Review: 02/18/2016
Last Revised: 02/22/2016