According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lung cancer is the second most diagnosed cancer among both men and women in the United States.
Also known as carcinoma of the lung, lung cancer occurs due to uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung. If left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body. Lung cancer is broadly classified into two types: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.
Smoking is the number one risk factor for getting lung cancer. However, it may also develop in people who never smoked.
People who have a family history of lung cancer, especially a parent or sibling, are at increased risk. Other risk factors include exposure to secondhand smoke, radon gas or other harmful gases.
Lung cancer mainly occurs in older people. Almost 70 percent of people diagnosed with it are over 65 years old, while less than 3 percent are under age 45.
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer causes about 27 percent of all cancer deaths. In fact, every year, more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.
This is because this cancer is often diagnosed at a later stage, making it more difficult to treat. In many cases, it may not show any noticeable symptoms in the early stages.
Thus, it is essential to know the possible signs and symptoms of lung cancer, so if needed you can consult your doctor and catch it in the early stages.
Here are the 10 signs and symptoms of lung cancer:
1. Chronic Coughing
Everyone suffers from colds and coughs from time to time. But if you have chronic cough that lasts three weeks or more and no other symptoms of a cold, it can be an early sign of lung cancer.
Often, patients complain of chest pain that extends up into the shoulder or down the arm during coughing, which can be dry or produce mucus.
If you have a persistent cough that lingers for weeks and does not respond to medication, see your doctor right away. With some X-rays or other tests, your doctor can find out the exact cause and plan appropriate treatment.
2. Coughing up Blood
If you are coughing up blood (hemoptysis), whether the amount is small or large, see your doctor as soon as possible to find out the cause.
This can indicate lung cancer, particularly if you are a smoker. Both non-small cell lung carcinoma and small cell lung carcinoma can cause this symptom.
You may also notice changes in a chronic cough like coughing more often or coughing with a deeper or hoarse sound. Plus, you may experience chest pain, breathlessness, fever, wheezing or other symptoms of lung cancer.
Other possible causes for coughing up blood include infections, such as tuberculosis, bronchitis or pneumonia, and certain cardiovascular conditions.
3. Wheezing Sound
When airways become constricted, blocked or inflamed, it results in a wheezing or whistling sound when you breathe out.
The most common causes of wheezing are asthma and allergies. However, it can also be a symptom of lung cancer.
If wheezing continues and you do not have asthma, consult your doctor to find out what’s causing it.
4. Shortness of Breath
Being short of breath or becoming easily winded may also indicate lung cancer. About 9 out of 10 people who have advanced lung cancer experience this symptom.
It can also be caused by clogged arteries, anemia, a respiratory infection, chronic bronchitis, heavy workouts and lack of oxygen in high-altitude areas.
In normal circumstances, you experience shortness of breath when you are not taking in enough oxygen and your lungs try to draw in more air to make up for it.
If lung cancer is present, shortness of breath may occur if there is blockage in the airway or if fluid from a lung tumor builds up in the chest.
If you suddenly experience shortness of breath while doing a simple task that you used to do easily in the past, do not take it lightly. Consult your doctor.
5. Chest and Bone Pain
Chest pain that worsens with coughing, laughing or deep breathing is often an early symptom of lung cancer. This happens when the cancer spreads to the lining of a lung.
In advanced stages, the cancer may spread to the bones and you may also experience pain in the back, arms, neck, shoulder or in other areas of the body. This type of pain often worsens at night while resting on your back.
The duration and severity of pain can vary depending on different factors, including local effects of the tumor and regional or distant spread of the tumor.
A 2012 study published in Clinical Medicine Insights: Oncology points out the three main causes of pain in patients with advanced lung cancer. These causes are skeletal metastatic disease (34%), pan coast tumor (31%) and chest wall disease (21%).
For unexplained chest or bone pain lasting more than four weeks, always consult your doctor.
6. Frequent Chest Infections
If you frequently suffer from chest infections like bronchitis or pneumonia despite taking antibiotics, it can be a sign of overall poor lung health, including cancer.
When a tumor blocks off an airway, an infection can build up behind the blockage, making it harder to treat even with antibiotics. You may also have a dry, nagging cough that lingers for several weeks.
If your pneumonia or bronchitis doesn’t respond to treatment, ask your doctor to conduct a thorough lung checkup to rule out the possibility of cancer.
7. Difficulty Swallowing
Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) is common when you have a sore throat. However, if you are experiencing pain while swallowing solid or liquid food that persists for a few weeks and even gets worse, it can be a sign of throat or stomach cancer as well as an early sign of lung cancer.
In the case of lung cancer, there will be additional symptoms like choking or coughing while eating.
A 2014 study published in the Egyptian Journal of Chest Diseases and Tuberculosis established dysphagia as a common symptom of lung cancer.
If you are having difficulty swallowing, see your doctor as soon as possible to find out the cause and best treatment options.
8. Raspy, Hoarse Voice
Most of us suffer from hoarseness on occasion, especially when associated with laryngitis (an upper respiratory tract viral infection).
It may also be caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), allergies, persistent coughing, and inhaling respiratory tract irritants.
Hoarseness related to lung cancer occurs when the tumor affects the nerve controlling the vocal chords. Due to the cancer, the vocal chords become irritated and inflamed, leading to changes in your voice.
If you notice changes in the pitch and volume of your voice lasting more than 2 to 3 weeks without any known reason, consult your doctor. Persistent hoarseness, along with wheezing, shortness of breath or coughing up blood, may indicate lung cancer.
9. Unexplained Weight Loss
If you are suddenly losing weight, especially when you are not trying to, it can be due to the presence of a cancer.
About 6 out of 10 people with lung cancer experience sudden weight loss. It can also be due to other types of cancer, such as stomach, pancreatic or esophageal cancer.
When cancer is present, you lose weight because cancer cells start using energy stored in the body. Plus, your body may not be able to absorb all the fat, protein and carbohydrates from the food you eat. Often, along with weight loss, you will have symptoms like constant fatigue, loss of appetite and weakness.
If you are not dieting and still losing weight, see your doctor to find out the exact cause.
10. Nail Clubbing
Nail clubbing causes several changes in fingernails or toenails. These changes include softening of the nail beds, changes in the angle between the cuticle and the nail, and downward curving of the nail.
The most common cause of nail clubbing is reduced amount of oxygen in the blood due to some heart or lung problem. 3 out of 10 people with non small cell lung cancer are likely to develop this symptom.
If you have nail clubbing along with some of the other symptoms mentioned above, consult your doctor immediately.
Tips to reduce your chances of getting lung cancer
- If you’ve never smoked, don’t start. If you smoke, it is time to quit.
- Make sure not to be exposed to secondhand smoke.
- Test your home for radon and take necessary steps to remove it.
- Avoid being exposed to airborne carcinogens at work.
- Avoid going to highly polluted and industrialized areas.
- Improve the indoor air quality of your home and office by having indoor plants, such as a fern, peace lily, bamboo palm, aloe vera, English Ivy and others.
- Exercise daily and stay active.
- Eat a diet comprising nutritious fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Avoid stress and anxiety, which adversely impact your health. Do meditation and yoga to relax your mind and body.
- Practice deep breathing for 10 minutes, a few times daily.
- Cleanse and detox your lungs by drinking ginger tea, 2 or 3 times a day.
- Do not take any medications or supplements without consulting your doctor.
- Maintain proper hygiene and get regular health checkups.