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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.
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.
The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:
If lung cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it may cause:
Some lung cancers can cause syndromes, which are groups of specific symptoms.
Cancers of the upper part of the lungs are sometimes called Pancoast tumors. These tumors are more likely to be non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) than small cell lung cancer (SCLC).
Pancoast tumors can affect certain nerves to the eye and part of the face, causing a group of symptoms called Horner syndrome:
Pancoast tumors can also sometimes cause severe shoulder pain.
The superior vena cava (SVC) is a large vein that carries blood from the head and arms down 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), as well as trouble breathing. 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 may cause problems in distant tissues and organs, even though the cancer has not spread to those places. These problems are called paraneoplastic syndromes. Paraneoplastic syndromes can affect your nervous system (paraneoplastic neurologic syndrome) or your endocrine system (paraneoplastic endocrine syndrome).Sometimes these syndromes may be the first symptoms of lung cancer. Because the symptoms affect other organs, a disease other than lung cancer may first be suspected as causing them.
Paraneoplastic syndromes can happen with any lung cancer but are more often associated with small cell lung cancer (SCLC).
In paraneoplastic endocrine syndrome, the lung tumor makes hormone-like substances that enter the bloodstream and affect distant organs. Examples include:
In paraneoplastic neurologic syndrome, the tumor can cause the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack parts of the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, nerves), rather than the cancer cells. Examples include:
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.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Chiang A, Detterbeck FC, Stewart T, Decker RH, Tanoue L. Chapter 48: Non-small cell lung cancer. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
Hann CL, Wu A, Rekhtman N, Rudin CM. Chapter 49: Small cell and Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Lung. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Health Professional Version. Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment. 2023. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/hp/small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq on Jan 23, 2024.
Last Revised: November 20, 2023