How to spot the early signs of lung cancer?

Potts Disease_coughing

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

What is lung cancer and how is it caused?

It is difficult to predict if a person has lung cancer or not since it is often asymptomatic, or invisible.  It becomes clear only when it has become more advanced.  There are some minute indicators available, but one could realize this to be related to the condition.  Early diagnosis is the only way a person could be treated appropriately.

It becomes very difficult to treat lung cancer that is diagnosed at a later stage.  Symptoms of lung cancer in men generally differ from symptoms of lung cancer in women.   Regardless of sex, many people generally are not aware of the most common symptoms of lung cancer.  It is not necessary for a person to be a smoker to be diagnosed with lung cancer and in fact, the majority of people who are diagnosed with lung cancer do not smoke.

Studies have indicated that lung cancer is treatable when it is in the early stages, but unfortunately, people are diagnosed with it only in advanced stages.  It is important to become familiar with the symptoms of lung cancer in the first place.  In fact, it would take a lot of courage to learn if you are a candidate for lung cancer.

Facts on lung cancer

  • Lung cancer accounts for 1.56 million deaths every year worldwide.
  • The risk of developing lung cancer in the United States stands at 8% for men and 6% for women.
  • It has been found that military veterans have a higher risk due to chronic smoking.
  • Lung cancer is considered the most common cause of cancer-related deaths.
  • Majority of lung cancer cases are from Europe, North America, and East Asia.

Signs and symptoms of early lung cancer

Lung cancer symptoms can be divided into various categories.  Some of the categories are discussed below:

Persistent cough followed by coughing up blood

Potts Disease_coughingA new chronic cough, which does not subside, can be signs of cancer development.  This cough may further develop into coughing up blood or mucus that is rust colored.  These symptoms should be immediately reported to your doctor.  These symptoms cannot be misunderstood for flu, as cough associated with the flu does not make you cough up blood.  Any cough associated with blood is considered to be a red flag, so never avoid it.  The symptoms related to cough may be followed by hoarseness, which again can be considered a red flag.

Breathing difficulties

This symptom seems to be the second most common symptom associated with lung cancer.  Any shortness of breath associated with regular activities should not be taken lightly.  An underlying reason for this is definitely present.  Shortness of breath may also be related to heart problems due to a blocked artery.  Similarly, shortness of breath associated with wheezing may be an early symptom of lung cancer.

Weight changes

Losing weight rapidly without trying to lose it may be related to your body that is under danger.  Any significant weight loss in excess of 10-15 pounds should be discussed with your doctor immediately to find the underlying cause, as it may be related to an early sign of cancer.

Chest pain

Experiencing chest pain suddenly without any exertion or strain may be an indication of the underlying disease.  People suffering from heart problems too can experience sudden and sharp chest pain due to the blockage of an artery.  Pain in the chest associated with pain in shoulders or back may be an indication of lung cancer into advanced stages, as it tries to spread to other parts of the body.

Ultimately, it is not easy to predict the early signs of lung cancer.  It is better to fix an appointment with your doctor and get a lung cancer screening done.  People having family members with any type of cancer should make it a point to get screened for cancer.

Advanced lung cancer symptoms

Lung cancer in advanced stages generally spread to other parts of the body.  It generally affects the bones, brain, as well as liver.  Once lung cancer starts spreading to different parts of the body, there is a new set of symptoms emanating from them including:

  • Continuous pain in the bones.
  • Noticeable swelling of the face, neck, and arms.
  • May cause headache associated with dizziness.
  • Causes numbness and weakness in the limbs
  • May cause jaundice once it affects the liver.
  • Raised lumps may surface on the neck.

Non-small cell lung cancer symptoms

This type of cancer spreads slowly over a period of time before the symptoms surface.

  • Coughing that may be persistent without any known cause.
  • The cough may often be associated with blood-tinged sputum.
  • Pain with breathing may occur
  • Shortness of breath even without exertion.
  • Feeling extremely weak or tired.
  • Wheezing associated with hoarseness.
  • Regular bronchitis or pneumonia infections.
  • Persistent bone pain.

Non-small cell lung cancer symptoms may lead to other symptoms as discussed below.

Affects the brain

Parkinson’s disease brainNon-small cell lung cancer is known to spread to the brain.  Once cancer spreads to the brain, it causes severe headaches associated with seizures.  The neurological function may largely be affected if the tumor presses against any nerve fibers.

Causes raised lumps

The cancer spreads to the neck and other parts of the body affecting the lymph nodes.  These lymph nodes become inflamed and raised lumps may appear on the neck.

May lead to Horner syndrome

This syndrome is associated with the constricted pupil and associated with drooping of the upper eyelid.  This phenomenon is caused due to nerve damage.  In the case of lung cancer, it spreads to other parts of the body causing disruption to the nerve pathways, and this possibly causes nerve damage.  Horner syndrome does not have treatment unless the underlying cause is rectified.

Causes paraneoplastic syndrome

There are certain chemicals that are released due to the reactions of cancer cells.  This chemicals cause numerous health-related issues that are called paraneoplastic syndrome.  Some of the paraneoplastic syndromes includes SIADH, Lambert-Eaton syndrome. The related medical condition associated with them includes muscle cramps, hypercalcemia, etc.

Small cell lung cancer symptoms

This type of lung cancer is generally not diagnosed until it is developed into an advanced stage.  Some of the early signs and symptoms of small cell lung cancer are discussed below.  The symptoms continue to evolve over a period of time and affect other organs.

  • Continuous cough.
  • Severe chest pain, which can be felt with each time you breathe in or out.
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss associated with loss of appetite.
  • May lead to rust-colored sputum production.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Regularly affected by bronchitis and pneumonia infections.
  • Persistent wheezing.

Symptoms of advanced-stage small cell lung cancer

  • Persistent musculoskeletal pain.
  • Causes headaches associated with dizziness.
  • Numbness and weakness may arise in limbs.
  • Jaundice occurs when the liver is affected.
  • Lymph nodes become inflamed causing lumps in the neck.

Metastatic lung cancer symptoms

This type of cancer depends on the part of the body to which it has affected.  The intensity, size, as well as the location of the metastasis, may vary the symptoms.  These symptoms generally occur only at a later time when the cancer is in advanced stages.

  • When cancer has affected the bones, it causes persistent musculoskeletal pain that often targets the vertebrae or ribs. Calcium deposition becomes high causing constipation.
  • When the liver is affected, symptoms of jaundice occur. Some of the symptoms associated with it include nausea, extreme tiredness, discoloration of the skin to yellow, as well as swelling of the hands and feet.
  • Cancer may also affect the brain and spinal cord leading to neurological symptoms. Persistent headache, dizziness, vision difficulties, as well as seizures can be accompanied.

How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed?

The cancer diagnosis generally differs from person to person.  There are several factors a doctor would consider before diagnosing cancer.  Some of the factors include medical history, symptoms, physical examination findings, etc.  Some of the standard and tests and procedures would follow after this and include:

Imaging Tests

A series of imaging will be ordered by your doctor to confirm the diagnosis of lung cancer.  These imaging tests are particularly important to look inside your body.  The pictures obtained from the imaging tests may lead to a diagnosis of cancer.  Imaging tests are useful in many ways.  It is used to confirm the diagnosis, see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, etc.  Some of the commonly used imaging tests include:

  • CT scan (computed tomography).
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography).
  • Bone scan.


There are various procedures conducted inside the body to confirm the diagnosis.  The tissue and fluid culture are studied to understand the intensity of the cancer cells.  The procedure of removing the tissue and fluid from the body required for testing is performed in various aspects and include:

  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA)
  • Endoscopic esophageal ultrasound (EUS)
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Thoracoscopy or video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS)
  • Endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS)
  • Mediastinoscopy and mediastinotomy
  • Thoracentesis
  • Sputum cytology


Staging of the cancer is conducted once the diagnosis of cancer is confirmed by imaging as well as a procedural biopsy.  Staging of the cancer is very important to find out how much cancer has affected your body and how much it has spread.  It would determine the treatment plan as well as the prognosis.  Based on the staging, your doctor will decide treatment modes include surgery, chemotherapy, as well as radiation therapy.

Tumor Testing

Testing the tumor seems to be the next task after staging.  The cancerous tumor is generally tested for DNA changes.  It determines mutations in the tumor’s DNA.  It is also called biomarker testing or genomic testing.  This test looks for specific proteins that help the cancer cells to multiply rapidly.  When these proteins are identified, it makes it easier to target the mutations and avoid the process of cancer cell multiplication.

Who are at risk?

It is important to understand the causes of lung cancer and determine if you are at risk.  Some of the factors contributing to high risk include:

  • If you are a current smoker and have a 30-pack-year smoking history.
  • If you are aged between 55 and 80 years.
  • If you have smoked within the past 15 years even if not presently smoking.

Final thoughts

The above-mentioned symptoms are only a few possible signs of lung cancer.  The above-mentioned symptoms may or may not occur during the early stages of lung cancer.  If anyone has signs or symptoms that seem unfamiliar, they need to make an appointment to consult the doctor at the earliest.

Generally, the majority of people diagnosed with lung cancer are either current smokers or who have smoked in the past.  There is also an alarming number of diagnoses made with people who have never smoked in their life.  You need to understand that even if you have lived with a person who has continuously smoked might have put you at risk of developing this disease.  It should also be noted that around 20% of the people diagnosed with lung cancer are non-smokers and have had secondary smoke exposure.

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