A woman coughing and holding her chest
A woman coughing and holding her chest
A woman coughing and holding her chest

Lung Cancer Symptoms

While lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States, it’s not often detected early.

Unlike some other cancers, lung cancer usually presents no noticeable symptoms until it’s in an advanced stage. When the tumor grows large enough to press against other organs, it causes pain and discomfort. Sometimes, though, earlier warning signs can be a signal to call the doctor.

Often, before patients receive a lung cancer diagnosis, they have been experiencing symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, recurring respiratory infections or chest pain for a while. But since these symptoms have other, more common and less serious causes, the person may wait to see a doctor.

“While every cough or case of bronchitis isn’t a reason to believe you have lung cancer, if you are at high risk of developing lung cancer, paying attention to the early warning signs is critical,” says Russell Hales, a radiation oncologist and director of the Lung Cancer Program at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

Respiratory symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Chronic cough: People with lung cancer often have a cough that won’t go away. A cough that lasts for at least eight weeks is considered chronic.
  • Repeated respiratory infections: Lung tumors can block the airway, causing frequent infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Coughing up blood: Even if it’s just a small amount, coughing up blood or bloody mucus is a reason to call your doctor.
  • Shortness of breath: Lung cancer can cause the airway passage to narrow, which leads to difficulty breathing.
  • Hoarseness: Chronic coughing or a tumor that interferes with the vocal cords can cause people with lung cancer to have a raspy voice.
  • Chest pain: Lung cancer pain is due to a tumor causing tightness in the chest or pressing on nerves. You may feel pain in your chest, especially when breathing deeply, coughing or laughing.

Generalized symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Bone pain
  • Headaches
  • Lumps in the neck or collarbone area
  • Weakness or numbness in the limbs
  • Swelling in the face, neck or arms
  • Jaundice

When to Talk to Your Doctor About Lung Cancer Screening

The best time to catch lung cancer is when it is not causing symptoms. Consequently, those at an increased risk of developing lung cancer should talk to their doctor about having routine screenings, Hales says. Screenings can offer hope for early detection, when treatment is most likely to result in cure.

People considered at high risk for developing lung cancer:

  • Have a history of heavy smoking (for example, smoking at least one pack a day for 30 years);
  • Are current smokers or former smokers who quit within the past 15 years; and
  • Are between the ages of 55 and 80.

Learn more about lung cancer risk factors.

If your doctor detects anything abnormal during a lung cancer screening, diagnostic tests such as imaging scans and biopsies (lung tissue sampling) are the next step.

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