Lung Cancer (small cell) Overview

+ -Text Size

Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Signs and symptoms of small cell lung cancer

Most lung cancers do not cause symptoms until they have spread, but you should report any of the following problems to your doctor right away. Often these problems are caused by something other than cancer, but if lung cancer is found, getting treatment right away might mean it would work better. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Chest pain, often made worse by deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Coughing up bloody or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

When lung cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it may cause:

  • Bone pain (like pain in the back or hips)
  • Weakness or numbness of the arms or legs
  • Headache, dizziness, balance problems, or seizure
  • Yellow coloring of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Lumps near the surface of the body, caused by cancer spreading to the skin or to lymph nodes in the neck or above the collarbone

Some lung cancers can cause a group of symptoms called syndromes.

Horner syndrome

Cancers of the top part of the lungs (sometimes called Pancoast tumors) can damage a nerve that passes from the upper chest into your neck. This can cause severe shoulder pain. Sometimes these tumors also cause a group of symptoms called Horner syndrome:

  • Drooping or weakness of one eyelid
  • Having 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

Conditions other than lung cancer can also cause Horner syndrome.

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 may push on the SVC, which can cause the blood to back up in the veins. This can cause 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 come on slowly over time, in some cases it can become life-threatening, and needs to be treated right away.

Paraneoplastic syndromes

Some lung cancers can make hormone-like substances that enter the bloodstream and cause problems with other 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 other organs, patients and their doctors may suspect at first that something other than lung cancer is causing them. Some examples include:

SIADH: In this condition, the body retains too much water. Symptoms 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: This syndrome 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. This syndrome can be caused by things other than cancer.

Lambert-Eaton syndrome: In this nervous system condition, 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.

Most of the symptoms listed here are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, you should see a doctor right away.


Last Medical Review: 09/09/2014
Last Revised: 09/09/2014