Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women. Surprisingly, as many as 20% of those are people are ones who have never smoked at all. According to the American Cancer Society, more people die of lung cancer each year than they do of prostate cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer combined. Lung cancer can happen to anyone. Whether you’re young or old, a smoker or a non-smoker, it’s important to be on the lookout for lung cancer symptoms.

The signs and symptoms of lung cancer are not always obvious until the cancer has developed to a more advanced stage. Because of this, screening for lung cancer is especially important for those at a high risk of developing it. 

What is Lung Cancer Screening, and Who Qualifies?

For people at high risk of lung cancer, lungs are screened every year with a low-dose CT scan (LDCT) — especially since lung cancer symptoms don’t always appear until it is at a later stage. 

Lung cancer screenings are recommended for people who:

  • Are between 50 to 80 years old and in good health,
  • Currently smoke or have quit smoking in the past 15 years,
  • Have at least a 20-pack-year smoking history. (This is the number of packs of cigarettes per day multiplied by the number of years smoked. As an example, someone who smoked 2 packs a day for 10 years [2 x 10 = 20] has 20 pack-years of smoking, as does a person who smoked 1 pack a day for 20 years [1 x 20 = 20].)

Additionally, it’s important that people who are going to be screened:

  • Receive counseling to quit smoking if they currently smoke,
  • Have been told by their doctor about the possible benefits, limits, and harms of screening with LDCT scans,
  • Can go to a center that has experience in lung cancer screening and treatment.

Early Lung Cancer Symptoms

While most lung cancers do not cause symptoms until the cancer has become advanced, that is not the case for everyone. Early symptoms of lung cancer may include a slight cough or shortness of breath that typically becomes more severe as the cancer progresses. Lung cancer treatment, like most cancers, is likely to be more successful the earlier the cancer diagnosis. Because of that, we recommend you contact your doctor if you are experiencing any of these lung cancer symptoms:

  • Unexplained hoarseness
  • A lingering cough not associated with a cold
  • Coughing up blood or coughing up spit or phlegm tainted with blood
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite not due to lifestyle changes
  • Constant chest pain that worsens with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue and/or weakness
  • New onset of wheezing
  • Recurring (chronic) infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia

Advanced Lung Cancer Symptoms

Once lung cancer becomes advanced and spreads to other areas of the body, symptoms often change. Some advanced lung cancer symptoms may include:

  • Bone pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Lumps in the neck and/or collarbone region
  • A headache, dizziness, or weakness in the arms or legs

Dr. Anthony Van Ho, an oncologist at Compass Oncology, discusses the importance of lung cancer awareness and how continued research has provided more understanding of the different types of lung cancer, screening, and treatment options. 

Syndromes Caused By Lung Cancer

Some lung cancers can cause syndromes, which are groups of very specific symptoms. However, because these syndromes can affect other organs in the body, some doctors may misdiagnose, thinking something other than lung cancer is causing the problem. These three syndromes are:

1. Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS)

Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS) -- a syndrome that occurs when a person’s superior vena cava (the major vein that carries blood from the head and arms back to the heart) has a partial blockage or compression. Common symptoms of SVCS include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, coughing, and swelling of the face, neck, upper body, and arms.

2. Horner syndrome

Horner syndrome -- a combination of symptoms caused by a disturbance in the nerve pathway that runs from the brain to the face and eye on one side of the body. Typically, Horner syndrome results in drooping or weakness of one eyelid, decreased pupil size, and reduced or absent sweating on the affected side of the face.

3. Paraneoplastic syndromes

Paraneoplastic syndromes -- rare disorders triggered by substances produced and secreted by the tumor. These hormone-like substances affect distant tissues and organs, even though the cancer itself has not spread to those same areas. Some common paraneoplastic syndromes associated with lung cancer are:

  • Hypercalcemia (high blood calcium levels)
  • Blood clots
  • SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone)
  • Cushing syndrome
  • Excess growth or thickening of certain bones
  • Gynecomastia (excess breast growth in men)
  • Nervous system problems

In many cases, most of these symptoms related to lung cancer, including the listed syndromes, are the result of something other than lung cancer. Regardless, if you notice one or more of these signs or symptoms, or anything unusual, it is important to see your doctor immediately so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Learn about lung cancer diagnosis.

If you are local to Compass Oncology, our lung cancer specialists are available for appointments in several locations in the Portland-Vancouver area including East Portland, West Portland, Rose Quarter, Tualatin, and Vancouver, WA.