Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths (one in four) in both men and women. Treatment is more effective the earlier lung cancer is diagnosed, so see your doctor if you notice any of the following lung cancer symptoms.
Coughing up blood
“Coughing up blood is never a good sign. Right then and there, go see your doctor,” says Raja Flores, MD, professor and chairman of thoracic surgery at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Although cancer may not necessarily be the cause of your bloody coughs, you should definitely get tested, he says.
Pay attention to chest, back, or shoulder pain that’s new and doesn’t go away. You may notice a feeling of tightness, or a sharp pain that can get worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing. “You feel pain where the tumour is located,” says Dr. Flores. “If the tumour is to the side, you’ll feel pain on your side. If it’s toward the back of the chest, you’ll feel pain in your back.” Any chest pain warrants a call to your doctor, just in case, he says. Chest pain can also be a sign of a heart attack.
A persistent cough
Coughing fits can be caused by something as simple as allergies, a cold, or water down the wrong pipe. But if your cough never seems to go away, it could be a sign of something more serious, like lung cancer. “Cancer in the airway can irritate your throat and make you cough,” says Dr. Flores. “There’s something in there that’s not supposed to be there, so your body is trying to get rid of it.” Cancer can also produce mucus, which exacerbates the cough and makes it worse.
Shortness of breath
If you’re suddenly winded after climbing the stairs, or your daily walk around the block leaves you gasping for breath, it could be a symptom of lung cancer. “Shortness of breath can come from a tumour blocking the windpipe. It can also stem from an accumulation of fluid in the chest that pushes on the lung and leaves you with a lack of air,” says Dr. Flores. When cancer forms in the lining of the lung, it causes fluid to build up in your chest; and although your chest can hold between three and four liters of fluid, when it completely fills up, the lungs are unable to get enough air, he says. Difficulty breathing when you’re sitting or lying down can also be a sign of a troublesome condition.
If you feel rundown but haven’t made any changes to your daily routine, it could be a sign of cancer. “It may not specifically signal lung cancer, but it’s a definite red flag that something’s not right,” says Dr. Flores. Weight loss and loss of appetite is also a lung cancer sign, according to the American Cancer Society. Smoking, a family history of cancer, and asbestos exposure also increases your lung cancer risk.
An asthma diagnosis
Suffering from asthma by no means guarantees you’ll get lung cancer. However, if you’re diagnosed with asthma past childhood, it’s a good idea to get screened for lung cancer, says Dr. Flores. “It’s an unusual symptom, but it’s something to keep in the back of your mind if you’re a young adult or older and just got diagnosed with asthma,” he says. “Pulmonologists often listen to your lungs, hear wheezing, and treat it as asthma; but it’s a good idea to get a scan to make sure there’s not a tumour in there, which could be causing a blockage.”
Overall body pain
Since lung cancer often doesn’t present with symptoms until the later stages, it can go undiagnosed until it has spread to other parts of the body. Headaches, dizziness and balance problems, or numbness in the limbs may mean the cancer has spread to the brain or spinal cord. Yellowing of the skin and eyes could be a sign it has spread to the liver, and lumps on the body could mean the disease has spread to the skin or lymph nodes, according to the American Cancer Society.