A Guide to Lung Cancer Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By Adithya Cattamanchi, M.D.
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Lung cancer occurs when atypical cells in the lungs grow and multiply uncontrollably. This can cause various symptoms. If you experience any of the symptoms of lung cancer, speak with your doctor right away. There are two main subtypes of lung cancer, small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that about 236,740 people in the United States will get lung cancer in 2022. 

The ACS also reports that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, correlating to 25% of all deaths. 

This article will discuss the early signs of lung cancer. It will also explain the symptoms of the two types of lung cancer.

What are the early signs of lung cancer?

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You have two lungs, a right lung and a left lung. Your right lung has three lobes, and your left lung has two.

Both lungs contain:

  • Bronchi: These are tubular air passageways with small branches. 
  • Alveoli: These are the tiny air sacs at the ends of the bronchi.

Lung cancer typically begins in these cells that line the lungs’ air passages. From there, it can spread to the lymph nodes or other organs in the body, such as the brain. 

Experts use the term “metastasis” to describe the advancement of cancer cells in the body.

Early-stage lung cancer has yet to metastasize and may not cause symptoms. In some cases, however, symptoms may occur. 

These early signs may include:

Learn more about early symptoms of lung cancer.

What are the symptoms of small cell lung cancer?

SCLC is a fast-growing type of cancer that begins in the small cells of the lungs. It commonly affects people who have a habit or history of smoking, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

There are two types: small cell carcinoma and combined small cell carcinoma. The cancer tissue of each type grows and spreads differently, according to the NCI. They also look different under a microscope.

Typical symptoms of SCLC include:

What are the symptoms of non-small cell lung cancer?

NSCLC is when cancer begins in the large cells of the lungs. It is a common complication of smoking.

There are several types of NSCLC:

  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • large cell carcinoma
  • sarcomatoid carcinoma
  • salivary gland carcinoma
  • carcinoid tumor
  • unclassified carcinoma

Each type has a distinct appearance under a microscope. Each type also grows and spreads differently.

General symptoms of NSCLC include:

  • wheezing
  • a feeling of weakness or tiredness
  • coughing up blood or mucus
  • coughing that lingers or gets worse
  • hoarseness 
  • trouble swallowing
  • loss of appetite
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain that gets worse when you cough, laugh or take deep breaths
  • weight loss

What are the symptoms of advanced lung cancer?

Doctors use the TNM classification system to stage lung cancer.

The system follows the following principle: 

T – size and location of the tumor

N – extent of spread to the lymph nodes 

M – metastasis

The stages of NSCLC range from 1 to 4, according to the American Lung Association:

  • Stage 1: Cancer cells have affected only the lungs.
  • Stage 2: Cancerous tumors are growing and spreading to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3: Cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes in the mediastinum, the area between the lungs.
  • Stage 4: Cancer cells have metastasized or spread to distant parts of the body.

Unlike NSCLC, SCLC proceeds through two stages: limited and extensive stages.

  • Limited stage: Cancer cells have affected the lungs and may or may not have affected the lymph nodes in the mediastinum.
  • Extensive stage: Cancer cells have spread to the opposite lung or distant organs.

If lung cancer spreads to nearby parts of the body, it may cause:

  • dizziness
  • seizures
  • weakness
  • numbness
  • balance problems
  • bone pain 
  • swelling of lymph nodes in the neck or other areas
  • headache
  • jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes

What are the end-stage symptoms of lung cancer?

Where lung cancer has spread to distant organs, such as in stage 4 or the extensive stage, the following symptoms may occur:

  • headache
  • blurry vision
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weakness of any limb
  • mental changes
  • seizures
  • back pain
  • paralysis 
  • loss of bowel or bladder function
  • bone pain
  • pain in the right upper part of the abdomen

According to the ACS, some lung cancers can cause syndromes. Syndromes are a group of signs and symptoms that occur together. 

Horner’s syndrome

Pancoast tumors are lung cancers that form at the top parts of the lungs. They can sometimes cause a group of symptoms known as Horner’s syndrome. 

Symptoms include: 

  • drooping or weakness of one upper eyelid
  • a smaller pupil in the same eye
  • little or no sweating on the same side of the face

Learn more about Horner’s syndrome.

Superior vena cava syndrome

Lung cancer tumors can occasionally press on the superior vena cava (SVC), the large vein that transports blood from the head and arms down to the heart. This can disrupt blood flow and lead to a problem known as superior vena cava syndrome.

Symptoms of superior vena cava syndrome include:

  • swelling in the:
    • face
    • neck
    • arms
    • upper chest 
  • headaches and dizziness
  • change in consciousness

Paraneoplastic syndromes

Paraneoplastic syndromes result when the immune system reacts atypically to a cancerous tumor. These syndromes most commonly occur with SCLC but can happen with any lung cancer.

Examples include:

Many times, these symptoms can also signify other medical issues. Visit your doctor for a diagnosis if you have symptoms.

Learn more about Cushing’s syndrome.

Who is at risk of lung cancer?

The main risk factor for lung cancer is smoking. In fact, about 7 in 10 people with the condition have a history of smoking.

The NCI notes that the earlier a person smokes, the frequency with which they smoke, and the more years they smoke, the higher their risk of lung cancer.

Additional risk factors include:

  • exposure to secondhand smoke
  • exposure to carcinogens, such as beryllium, nickel, asbestos, arsenic, tar, and chromium
  • exposure to radiation-based medical procedures, such as radiation therapy and CT scans
  • exposure to home radon or atomic bomb radiation
  • using beta-carotene supplements 
  • air pollution
  • advanced age
  • family history of lung cancer
  • having HIV

Summary

Lung cancer occurs when atypical cells in the lungs grow and multiply uncontrollably. It commonly results from smoking.

Early-stage symptoms can include a lingering cough, swallowing difficulty, and swelling in the face or veins in the neck.

Lung cancer can often spread to nearby organs, causing more severe symptoms. These may include seizures, numbness, and balance problems. 

When lung cancer spreads to distant organs, paralysis, back pain, mental changes, and other serious symptoms may also develop.

Risk factors for lung cancer include exposure to carcinogens, air pollution, and a family history of lung cancer.

Seek early treatment if you have symptoms of lung cancer.

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Medical Reviewer: Adithya Cattamanchi, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 21
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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