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Lynne Eldridge MD

Finding Lung Cancer Early - What Symptoms Should You Watch For?

By January 22, 2013

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Knowing that survival is better when lung cancer is diagnosed in the earlier stages, it breaks my heart to know how often lung cancer is already in the advanced stages at the time of diagnosis. Roughly 30% of people have stage 3 lung cancer and nearly 40% are at stage 4 at the time of diagnosis. How can we change these numbers so that the majority of people are instead diagnosed in the early stages of lung cancer?


CT screening may be effective for some people, and guidelines now suggest that screening people between the ages of 55 and 74 with a 30 pack-year or more of smoking can save lives.

But even with screening, we're going to miss a lot of people. A recent study analyzed data to predict what percent of cancers would be detected early by adding in regular screening based on these guidelines. The answer is about 30% -- certainly better than no screening, but leaving at least 70% of people without an effective screening tool for lung cancer.

So what are we left with? Being aware of the symptoms. But what are those symptoms?

Researchers in the UK decided to look at that question. They looked at over 12,000 people with lung cancer to see if any of these people had symptoms suggestive of lung cancer prior to their diagnosis. It was found that many of these people did have symptoms in the 4 to 12 month period preceding their diagnosis.

Symptoms that were independently predictive of lung cancer included:

Certainly if you have any of these symptoms, and especially if you have risk factors such as a history of smoking, exposure to radon in your home, a family history of lung cancer or exposure to cancer causing chemicals at work (occupational exposures), make sure to talk to your doctor. It might mean making a few extra visits, but if we are going to increase the number of people who are diagnosed in the earlier more treatable stages of the disease and don't fit the criteria for CT screening, we need to make symptom awareness a huge priority.

Photo: istockphoto.com


Iven-Omofoman, B. et al. Using socio-demographic and early clinical features in general practice to identify people with lung cancer earlier. Thorax. 2013 Jan 15. (Epub ahead of print)

January 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm
(1) george robertson says:

Thank you so much for your talk in DC and making people aware of the importance of early diagnosis. I am one of the fortunate. Early diagnosis and operation with no chemo or radiation. Now 17 year survival.
I would like to add one item which may or may not be a very early symptom. Approx 6 to 8 weeks prior to my DX I began to notice that, even though I had no shortness of breath, when I would take a deep breath as one does when sighing, I would have to breath in 3 or 4 time before I felt, I guess the word would be “satisfaction”.
Just something I thought I would throw out to be aware of, important or not.
Hope to see you at another meeting soon and for many more years.
Thanks for all the inspiration.
George R

January 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm
(2) Mililani says:

Unfortunately, this set of symptoms to look for is still woefully inadequate. How are they much different than a stubborn bad cold? Maybe stress the coughing up blood, thought that could be seen as being caused by hard coughing.
Those symptoms in a 32 year old non-smoker just did not make our doctor think of lung cancer. My husband had a bad cough in August, went to the doctor. Doctor did an x-ray, found nothing, sent him home with antibiotics. He was dead from lung cancer in October.
Hopefully more research can unveil something else to look for. We’re learning much more so quickly.

January 28, 2013 at 9:54 am
(3) Steven Holman says:

We need to push for a simple and afforable blood or breath test to find the markers of lung cancer. My 24 yo daughter was treated for a persistent cough as bronchitis then pneumonia. I believe she had pneumonia and xray confirmed it while hiding the tumor. Three months later a biopsy was done and she had stage IV lung cancer. Her hips and lower spine we also affected. Radiation and chemotherapy were done, but six months later she passed. Nonsmoker, no radon, no environmental factors. Family history for cancer, just not lung. Something has to change since nothing has in the last 30 years.

January 28, 2013 at 7:19 pm
(4) jean says:

I will be having my 3rd surgery for lung cancer in 22 yrs. Yes I was a two-pack a day smoker but I quit after my first diagnosis and no reacurrence for 21 yrs. The first cancer was caught because of other issues and the diligence of a wonderful physician, Thoracic Surgeon, has caught the last two which accured in a time frame of 15 months.
I have been fortunate enough to walk away with just surgery except this time I may need Chemo and/or Radiation.
Without continuous CT scans these cancers would never have been picked up so early and I would not be so fortunate.

January 28, 2013 at 7:42 pm
(5) Sharon says:

I think George Robertson’s comment about the feeling of not being able to get satisfaction from a breath is very important as it was the one symptom that I had that was different from the other symptoms that could be passed off as a cold or bronchitis. People should really pay attention to that symptom. Also, when I used to yell up the stairs to my children, I couldn’t seem to get an entire sentence out without having to breathe – my words would just sort of die out. It was a very odd symptom that I know now was somehow related to the cancer. Chest pain – at first sharp and very intermittent – and then over the years it became very focused, aching and unrelenting.

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