Lung Cancer Symptoms Often Avoid Detection

One of the most frightening aspects of lung cancer is that, often, there are no symptoms until the cancer has spread too far.

But – sometimes – symptoms do begin to show themselves during the early stages of lung cancer. “If you go to your doctor when you first notice symptoms, your cancer might be diagnosed earlier,” says Jose Rodriguez, MD, FACS of Cardiothoracic Surgery Associates. “The earlier the diagnosis, the greater the likelihood that treatment will be effective.”

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the most common symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
  • 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, you may experience these symptoms:

  • Bone pain (such as pain in the back or hips)
  • Nervous system changes (headache, weakness or numbness of an arm or leg, dizziness, balance problems, or seizures), from cancer spreading to the brain or spinal cord
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), from cancer spreading to the liver
  • Lumps near the surface of the body, from cancer spreading to the skin or to lymph nodes (collections of immune system cells)

Many of the symptoms listed above are likely to be caused by conditions other than lung cancer. “Still, if you experience any, see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated,” explains Dr. Rodriguez.

Some lung cancers can cause a group of very specific symptoms, which are described as syndromes. According to the ACS, these include:

If you have any of these problems, see your doctor right away.

Horner Syndrome

Cancers of the top part of the lungs (sometimes called Pancoast tumors) may damage a nerve that passes from the upper chest into your neck. Symptoms include:

  • Severe shoulder pain
  • Drooping or weakness of one eyelid, and/or having a smaller pupil in that 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 SyndromeLung Cancer Symptoms Often Avoid Detection - In Content

The superior vena cava (SVC) is a large vein that carries blood from the head and arms 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. Symptoms include:

  • Swelling in the face, neck, arms and upper chest (sometimes with a bluish-red skin color)
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Change in consciousness

While SVC syndrome can develop gradually, in some cases it can become life-threatening and needs to be treated right away.

Paraneoplastic Syndromes

Some lung cancers can produce hormone-like substances. These enter the bloodstream and cause problems with distant tissues and organs, even though the cancer itself has not spread to those tissues or organs.

Some of the more common paraneoplastic syndromes include:

  • SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone). In this condition, the cancer cells make a hormone that causes the kidneys to retain water, creating very low salt levels in the blood. Symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle weakness or cramps, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, and confusion. Severe cases may lead to seizures and coma.
  • Cushing syndrome. In some cases, lung cancer cells produce a hormone that causes the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. Symptoms include weight gain, easy bruising, weakness, drowsiness, fluid retention, high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels (or even diabetes).
  • Neurologic problems. Small cell lung cancer can sometimes cause the body’s immune system to attack parts of the nervous system, weakening muscles and causing vision, balance and movement problems, among others.
  • Hypercalcemia (high blood calcium levels). Symptoms include frequent urination, thirst, constipation, nausea, vomiting, belly pain, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, confusion and other nervous system problems
  • Excess growth of certain bones, especially those in the finger tips,
  • Blood clots.
  • Gynecomastia (excess breast growth in men).

As with some of the symptoms mentioned earlier, if you have any of these problems, see your doctor right away. Even if the symptoms aren’t due to lung cancer, you’ll want to find and treat the cause.

Small Steps: Schedule your screening.
If you are 50 or older, put a colonoscopy screening on your do-it-now list.