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The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center

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Lung Cancer Warning Signs

While lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the U.S., it’s not often detected early. However, lung cancer screening offers hope for catching the cancer early when it’s easier to treat.

Unlike some other cancers, lung cancer usually has 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, there are earlier warning signs that are a signal to call the doctor. 

Risk Factors


Cigarette smoking is the most important risk factor in the development of lung cancer. It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of lung cancer diagnoses could be prevented if cigarette smoking were eliminated. Exposure to certain industrial substances such as arsenic, some organic chemicals, radon, asbestos, radiation exposure, air pollution, tuberculosis and environmental tobacco smoke in nonsmokers also increases a person’s risk of developing lung cancer.

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Common Lung Cancer Symptoms

Often, when patients receive a lung cancer diagnosis, they have been experiencing symptoms such as persistent breathing difficulty, recurring respiratory infections or chest pain for a while. But the patient likely didn’t realize these were symptoms of lung cancer, so they waited 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, M.D., a board-certified radiation oncologist and director of the multidisciplinary clinic at The Lung Cancer Program at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Common lung cancer symptoms include:

  • Chronic cough: People with lung cancer often complain of a cough that won’t go away; a chronic cough lasts for at least eight weeks.
  • 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 of blood, 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: When a lung tumor causes tightness in the chest or presses on nerves, you may feel pain in your chest, especially when breathing deeply, coughing or laughing.

Lung Cancer Screening


Catching lung cancer early and treating it quickly leads to the best hope of beating the disease. But, most often, lung cancer waits to show signs and symptoms until the cancer is in advanced stages, when it’s harder to treat. Lung cancer screening — a test that looks for cancer before you have symptoms — offers hope for early detection, when surgery is a potential cure.

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When to Talk to Your Doctor 

If you’re experiencing symptoms and at an increased risk of developing lung cancer, you should talk to your doctor about having a routine screening, Dr. Hales says.

Screenings for people at high risk of developing lung cancer offers hope for early detection, when surgery is a possible cure. Read more about lung cancer screening.

People considered at high risk for developing lung cancer:

  • Have a history of heavy smoking (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.

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. Read more about how to reduce your risk of lung cancer.

Lung Cancer E-Book

Lung Cancer: A Guide for Patients and Caregivers

It's natural to feel overwhelmed when you or your loved one is diagnosed with lung cancer - but you are not alone in your struggle. The lung cancer guide is a downloadable e-book for you and your loved ones to learn more about the condition and take charge of your care.

Learn more.