In most cases of lung cancer, symptoms are not evident until the cancer has progressed too far for a cure. However, in some cases for people with early lung cancer, symptoms can be detected. If you visit your doctor when lung cancer signs are first noticed, then your cancer may be diagnosed at an early stage where the effectiveness of treatment may be greater. The main symptoms of lung cancer are listed below:
- A persistent cough that will not go away or gradually worsens
- Chest pain that gets worse with deep breathing, laughing or coughing
- Loss of weight and appetite
- Blood or sputum (spit or phlegm) which is rust in color is coughed up
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of tiredness or weakness
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that refuse to go away or are recurrent
- New onset of wheezing
- If lung cancer spreads to other organs, the following may result:
- Bone pain(such as pain the back or hips)
- Changes in nervous system (such as weakness or numbness experienced in an arm or leg, headache, dizziness, problems balancing, or seizures)caused by the spread of cancer to the spinal cord or brain
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), or the spread of cancer to the liver
- Lumps located under the skin, as a result of the spread of cancer to the skin or lymph nodes (collections of immune system cells), such as those found in the neck or on top of the collarbone.
Many of the lung cancer signs listed above may be caused by conditions other than lung cancer. However, if you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult your doctor immediately to ascertain the cause and be prescribed the relevant treatment.
Specific symptoms can result from some types of lung cancers, and these symptoms are referred to as syndromes:
Cancers found on the top section of the lungs (sometimes referred to as Pancoast tumors) can result in damage to a nerve that passes to the neck from the upper chest. Severe pain in the shoulder can also be caused by this. If particular nerves to the eye and part of the face are affected, this will cause a group of symptoms referred to as Horner syndrome:
- Weakness of drooping of one eyelid
- Occurrence of an additional smaller pupil ( which is the dark part to the center of the eye) in the eye
- Reduction in or the absence of sweating one side of the face
- Horner syndrome can also be the result of conditions other than Horner syndrome.
Superior vena cava syndrome
The superior vena cava (SVC) is a large vein that transports blood back to the heart from the head and arms. This vein passes beside the upper section of the right lung and the lymph nodes located inside the chest. The blood can back up in the veins if the tumors in this area push on the SVC. Swelling in the face, arms, neck and upper chest (sometimes having a bluish-red skin color) will result, as well as headaches, dizziness and changes in consciousness once the brain is affected. SVC syndrome typically develops gradually, but in some cases it can become life-threatening and treatment should not be delayed.
Hormone-like substances can result from lung cancers, and these substances enter the bloodstream and create problems with distant tissues and organs. These problems are referred to as paraneoplastic syndromes, and can be the initial symptoms of lung cancer. Since organs other than the lungs can be affected by these symptoms, doctors may not initially suspect lung cancer but another disease.
Other common paraneoplastic syndromes associated with small cell lung cancer (SCLC) include:
- SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone): In this situation, cancer cells produce a hormone (ADH) which causes the retention of water in the kidneys, and therefore extremely low levels of salt in the blood. Some SIADH symptoms include loss of appetite, fatigue, weakness of muscles or cramps, vomiting, nausea, restlessness, and confusion. If no treatment is taken, the patient can experience seizures or lapse into a coma.
- Cushing syndrome: Lung cancer cells in many cases make ACTH, which is a hormone that causes the secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands. This can result in symptoms such as easy bruising, weight gain, drowsiness and the retention of fluid. Another effect of the Cushing syndrome is high blood pressure and high sugar levels, and even diabetes in some cases.
- Neurologic problems: The immune system of the body can also attack parts of the nervous system, as a result of the existence of small cell lung cancer. This can lead to problems such as a muscle disorder referred to as the Lambert-Eaton syndrome. With this syndrome, weakness is experienced around the hips, making it difficult to get up from a sitting position, which is an initial sign. The muscles then get progressively weak around the shoulder. A problem that is not so common is paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration, which causes unsteadiness in the movement of legs and arms, as well as loss of balance. It also becomes difficult to speak or swallow. Other nervous system problems can be caused by SCLC, including muscle weakness, vision problems, changes in sensation and sometimes even behavioral changes.
The more common paraneoplastic syndromes which are caused by non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) include:
- High levels of blood calcium (hypercalcemia, which can cause thirst, frequent urination, constipation, vomiting, nausea, belly pain, weakness, dizziness, fatigue, confusion and other types of problems with the nervous system.
- Excess growth of specific bones, especially those which are found in the finger tips and are often painful
- Blood clots
- Excess growth of breasts in men (gynecomastia)
Many of these symptoms mentioned above can be caused by other conditions, and not necessarily lung cancer. However, should you experience any of these problems, your doctor must be contacted urgently, so that the cause of the problem can be determined and treated immediately if necessary.