Lung cancer warning signs may be obvious, or they may be subtle enough that they aren’t immediately thought of as a cause for concern. Since at least half of people diagnosed with lung cancer are already in the advanced stages of the disease, recognizing the warning signs is important if we want to make a difference in the survival rate. What are 10 lung cancer warning signs that you should never ignore?
(Keep in mind that even if you've never smoked, you could still be at risk, especially if you are a woman. Almost twice as many women die from lung cancer as breast cancer each year, and 20% of these women have never smoked.)
#1 – A Cough That Doesn’t Go AwayOne of the most common signs of lung cancer is a persistent cough. It may seem obvious that this symptom should be checked out, but it is often attributed to something else. Perhaps you think it is allergies or just another winter cold, or that if you just wait another week, it will go away. Even if it seems like there is a simple reason for your chronic cough, if it is lasting, get it checked out.
#2 – Coughing up BloodCoughing up blood -- even a small amount -- is never normal. There are many conditions that can cause you to cough up blood, and one of these is lung cancer.
#3 - Shortness of BreathMany people who have been diagnosed with lung cancer say they were becoming more short of breath. Often, however, this isn’t a dramatic change. You might think that your shortness of breath is because you are a few years older, or you might attribute that decreased ability to run up the stairs without catching your breath as a sign that you need to exercise more. Talk to your doctor if you feel short of breath for any reason.
#4 - Recurrent Pneumonia or BronchitisWhen a cancer is present in your lungs, it can obstruct your airways, predisposing you to lung infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis. One problem is that even though lung cancer can cause pneumonia, it can be much harder to diagnose when a lung infection is present. Changes on x-rays caused by pneumonia can make it very difficult to see a cancer in some cases. If you have recurrent lung infections, ask your doctor if you need to be checked out further as to the cause of your infections.
#5 - Pain in your Chest or BackCertainly, symptoms of pain in your chest or back are more likely to be related to a cause other than lung cancer. Most of us have had back pain after lifting someone we probably shouldn’t have. But pain that persists, especially if you can’t think of any reason for that pain, should prompt a call to your doctor. Chest pain related to lung cancer tends to be constant rather than intermittent, and may worsen with time.
#6 - Pain in Your ShoulderWhen lung cancers grow near the top of the lungs (Pancoast tumors), they can put pressure on nerves in the armpit. This can cause shoulder pain that sometimes travels down the inside of the arm down to the hands.
#7 - FatigueI know this is a tough one. Do you know of anyone in your life that hasn’t complained about being tired at times? Yet the fatigue that goes along with cancer is often different. It is a tiredness that you can’t seem to “push through” or override with a cup of coffee. If you feel tired even though your lifestyle doesn’t explain the fatigue, especially if you feel tired after a good night’s rest, talk with your doctor.
#8 – HoarsenessA hoarse voice can occur with lung cancer if the tumor places pressure near your voice box (larynx) or irritates nerves traveling to the voice box. You may first notice that you need to “clear your throat” more often, or a friend or family member may remark that your voice sounds different than usual. Hoarseness can occur with allergies, as a remnant of a cold, or even from singing too loud in the car or cheering too loud at a ball game. But if you notice hoarseness that lasts, get it checked out.
#9 – Weight Loss Without TryingIn a society where being overweight is the norm, this symptom may actually be welcomed at first – especially if the pounds drop off without eating less or exercising more. But unintentional weight loss should always be evaluated. Cancers can cause changes in your metabolism so that weight loss occurs even if you eat the proper amount of calories.
#10 – Any Unexplained SymptomLung cancer has presented in many uncommon ways, ranging from anemia, to diarrhea, to knee pain. Some lung cancers release hormone-like substances causing a unique constellation of symptoms termed paraneoplastic syndrome.
Given that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women in the United States, these uncommon symptoms are not so uncommon when they add up as initial signs of lung cancer. If you don’t have a good explanation for something that is concerning to you, ask your doctor. And if she can’t give you a solid explanation, ask her who she would recommend you talk with.
National Cancer Institute. Lung Cancer. Accessed 09/06/12. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/lung
National Cancer Institute. What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer. Updated 07/26/07. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/lung