Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer can produce uncomfortable symptoms including chest pain, a worsening cough, and trouble breathing.

Lung cancer happens when cancer cells form in the lung tissue and the lining of your air passages. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States and the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women.

The two main types of lung cancer are small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Unfortunately, it can be hard to detect lung cancer in the early stages. Symptoms usually start out mild and then progress slowly. If you do develop symptoms, you may experience chest pain, a nagging cough, and frequent respiratory infections. 

Knowing the warning signs of lung cancer is important so you can get tested for the condition early. While getting tested for cancer may feel scary, an early diagnosis helps to improve treatment outcomes and can prolong your life. 

older man holding hands over heart due to chest pain

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Early Symptoms

Symptoms of lung cancer in the early stages can sometimes mimic the symptoms of other conditions—or be undetectable altogether. This is likely due to the fact that there are very few nerve endings in the lungs. This allows a cancerous tumor to grow without causing pain, discomfort, or other noticeable symptoms.

If you do develop symptoms in the early stages, you may start to experience:

Progressive Symptoms

As lung cancer grows and spreads, you might experience more aggressive symptoms. One sign of progressive lung cancer is repeated lung infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis. These infections may be ongoing if you have a tumor in your lungs. 

Other progressive symptoms of lung cancer may include:

  • Weakness 
  • Headaches 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Coughing up blood
  • Trouble swallowing 
  • Swelling in your face 
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Fatigue or feeling more tired than usual
  • Chest pain that worsens when taking a deep breath, coughing, or laughing 

Coughing up blood in large quantities or too often can be a medical emergency. Please reach out to your healthcare provider right away or call 911 for immediate attention.

In addition to lung symptoms, some lung cancers can also cause other syndromes that affect different parts of the body. These syndromes can be reversed or resolve completely with treatment of the lung cancer. Progressive lung cancer can cause these conditions such as:

  • Horner syndrome: This is caused by tumors in the upper part of the lungs. Symptoms may include drooping of one eyelid, a smaller pupil in the same eye, and a lack of sweating on the same side of the face. Horner syndrome is more common in NSCLC. 
  • Superior vena cava syndrome: Tumors in the chest can put pressure on the superior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the head and arms to the heart. This syndrome causes blood to back up in the veins, causing dizziness, headaches, and swelling in the face, neck, arms, and chest. 
  • Paraneoplastic syndromes: This group of syndromes often occur with SCLC. Some examples of conditions include blood clots, nervous system problems, too much calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia), and Cushing syndrome—a condition that occurs when cancer cells make too much cortisol (the stress hormone). 

It’s important to note that other, non-cancerous lung conditions may also cause frequent infections or respiratory (lung-related) symptoms. In any case, you should consider seeing your healthcare provider if you notice a change in symptoms or overall health.

End Stage Symptoms

Once lung cancer metastasizes (spreads) to other areas of the body, other symptoms may occur.  Later stages of lung cancer tend to cause a general sense of not feeling well.

The end-stage symptoms of lung cancer can affect any area of the body, depending on where cancer has spread. Lung cancer cells may often spread to the bones, nervous system, and liver.  

Bone symptoms of end-stage lung cancer may include:

  • Pain in the back or hips
  • Frequent bone fractures

Nervous system symptoms of end-stage lung cancer may include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of balance 
  • Seizures 

Liver-related symptoms of end-stage lung cancer may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It is vital to see your healthcare provider as soon as you develop any of the signs or symptoms of this condition. 

It is especially important to see your healthcare provider if you develop signs of lung cancer when you are considered high-risk for this disease. Risk factors for lung cancer include smoking tobacco and exposure to hazardous materials such as radon, asbestos, or secondhand smoke. 

See your doctor if you develop any of the following signs of lung cancer:

  • Cough that gets progressively worse
  • Chest pain that worsens with deep breathing
  • Recurrent lung infections
  • Coughing up blood 

Lung cancer cannot always be prevented but it is possible to lower your risk. The most important step you can take is quitting smoking. Talk with your healthcare provider if you are ready to lower or quit your tobacco use and need some support in reaching this goal. 

A Quick Review

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the cells that line the lungs and airways. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States, and the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women.

Unfortunately, lung cancer symptoms can go unnoticed because early stages of lung cancer can mimic other conditions or not cause any symptoms at all. The earliest signs of lung cancer usually include difficulty breathing, chronic coughing, hoarseness, wheezing, and chest pain. 

As lung cancer spreads, symptoms can develop in other parts of the body. Signs of progressive lung cancer may include fatigue, loss of appetite, weakness, unintentional weight loss, and headaches. Symptoms in end-stage lung cancer can also affect the bones, nervous system, and liver. 

If you develop any signs of lung cancer, especially if you have a history of smoking, see your healthcare provider right away. Getting tested for lung cancer can be scary—this feeling is normal. But, knowing the symptoms and receiving an early diagnosis can get you started on treatment sooner and improve your quality of life. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Lung cancer

  2. American Lung Association. Lung cancer symptoms.

  3. National Cancer Institute. Lung cancer.

  4. American Cancer Society. Lung cancer signs & symptoms.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

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