This occurs when there is an abnormal growth of cells in the lungs. These abnormal cells cluster together to form tumors. The tumor destroys the healthy cells around them, therefore, making the affected organs unable to function properly.
There are two main types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. A third less common type is called carcinoid. Determining which type of cancer a patient has is vital for the proper course of treatment.
Cigarette smoking is often attributed to as the leading cause of lung cancer. It contains more than 4,000 chemicals, many of which have been identified as carcinogenic. Apart from this, exposure to tobacco smoke, inhalation of chemicals or toxins and family history may also cause the cells in the lungs to mutate or change which may lead to lung cancer.
During its early phases, there are usually no warning signs of lung cancer, which makes it hard to spot. The tumors in the lungs can grow quite large before noticeable symptoms appear. Early symptoms resemble a cold or other common condition, so most people don’t seek medical attention right away.
Here are some signs and symptoms people at risk of lung cancer should look out for:
1. A persistent cough that worsens over time
Coughing is our body’s way of clearing irritants in our airways and protects our lungs from infection.
A chronic cough can last for weeks or months and maybe a sign that something is seriously wrong. Unlike a cough due to a cold or respiratory infection that will go away in a week or so.
Cancer can trigger this natural reflex. Coughs that are related to lung cancer can either be wet or dry. A wet or productive cough is when a patient coughs up mucus.
Cancer coughs have no specific pattern. It can occur at any time. It can occur at any time of day and may interfere with sleep which results in daytime tiredness.
Pay attention to any change in a chronic cough, especially for those who smoke. Changes like frequency, deepness or hoarseness or if there are any unusual amounts of mucus expelled should warrant an immediate doctor’s appointment.
2. Coughing up blood
The medical term for this is hemoptysis. This is one of the most common signs of lung cancer. Cancer can cause bleeding in the airway, hence the mucus expelled can be tinged with blood. The amount of blood produced can vary from a few streaks of blood mixed with normal sputum to large amounts of pure blood. The blood that comes up with a cough often looks bubbly because it is mixed with air and mucus. It is usually bright red.
Coughing up blood is a concerning and frightening symptom. Fortunately, not everyone who has lung cancer and coughs up blood has advanced lung cancer. It may be that the area where cancer started to grow. Also, it could have been near a small blood vessel, and this led to blood being produced.
While it is noted that coughing up blood is perceived as being a sure sign of lung cancer, this is not always the case. There are many reasons why people cough up blood that have nothing to do with lung cancer. The most common reason is a chest infection. Additional causes include nosebleeds, occasional bleeding in the throat, irritation in the airways or inflammation of the stomach or esophagus.
3. Constant chest pain
Most people with lung cancer do not feel pain or other symptoms during the early stages. This is because there are very few nerve endings in the lungs.
Unlike the lungs, the wall of the chest is very sensitive to pain.
Lung cancer may cause pain. Pain can occur when lung cancer invades the chest wall, ribs, vertebrae, or certain nerves. This may signify that the cancer is already in its advanced stage.
In addition, the pain worsens with coughing, laughing or taking deep breaths. The pain can be sharp, dull, constant or intermittent. As the tumor grows, the pain would be felt in the chest, arm and back areas. As cancer spreads, pain in the back becomes more noticeable especially when lying on the back at night. It increases with movement.
Chest pain is a symptom in about one-fourth of people with lung cancer.
4. Shortness of breath
People with lung cancer can experience shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, if cancer grows to block the major airways. The fluid that has also accumulated in the space that surrounds the affected lung in the chest cavity (pleural effusion) or the spread of the tumor throughout the lungs can also cause shortness of breath.
Moreover, shortness of breath also happens when there is trouble moving air in and out of the lungs. It can also happen if the lungs aren’t getting enough oxygen.
Dyspnea is described as the sensation of being short of breath. In addition, it is also described as the feeling of being unable to get enough air, feeling uncomfortable with breathing, chest tightness, or a feeling of being smothered or suffocated.
5. Unexplained weight loss
Lung cancer patients often experience a sudden loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss. Although the two can also be signs of some other serious illness, a sudden loss of 10 pounds or more may signify lung cancer especially when it is combined with other lung cancer symptoms.
According to The American Cancer Society, the sudden unexplained weight loss is often the first noticeable symptom of cancers of the esophagus, pancreas, stomach, and lungs.
When cancer is present, weight loss is often a result of the cancer cells using much of the energy. Apart from that, difficulty in swallowing may also be another reason why lung cancer patients experience drastic weight loss.
6. Feeling tired or weak
Fatigue is one of the most common and debilitating symptoms experienced by people who have lung cancer. It is characterized by feelings of tiredness, lack of energy or weakness.
Lung cancer can cause the number of red blood cells in the body to drop. Red blood cells are essential in carrying oxygen throughout the body. A decrease in the circulation of these red blood cells inhibits the body from having enough oxygen to support itself for day to day functions.
Furthermore, the body works overtime to try to fight the attack of cancer. This can drain energy, making a person with lung cancer feel tired and lethargic.
Fatigue may become more pronounced as lung cancer advances.
7. Chronic lung infections
People with lung cancer frequently develop repeated lung diseases like pneumonia and bronchitis. These diseases and lung cancer may be mistaken for one or the other due to several overlapping symptoms. Symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, and chest discomfort.
Typically, the symptoms of pneumonia or bronchitis are more immediately severe. Lung cancer generally develops more slowly and does not cause symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage.
Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs. Bacteria, viruses, and fungi cause it. The infection causes inflammation in the air sacs in the lungs, which are called alveoli. The alveoli fill with fluid or pus, making it difficult to breathe. Pneumonia can be a complication brought about by lung cancer.
Whereas, bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchi, the main air passages to the lungs. It is an inflammation in the lungs that some people call a chest cold. It can be a miserable, but minor, illness that follows a viral illness like the common cold or may follow a more serious condition like a chronic smoker’s hack. And like pneumonia, it has similar symptoms to lung cancer. Unlike pneumonia, though, there is no onset of fever.
Hoarseness is a term that refers to any weakening or change in the voice. It is one of the more common signs of lung cancer although it may also be caused by other conditions as well.
The majority of hoarseness in lung cancer patients is caused by recurrent laryngeal nerve palsy which is the paralysis or weakness in that nerve. Tumors in the left lung can press on the nerve, causing hoarseness, or recurrent laryngeal nerve palsy. Therefore, it should be noted that hoarseness is more common in those with tumors to the left lung.
In addition, tumors in the chest can also directly cause pressure on the vocal cords or larynx.
9. Bone pain
When lung cancer has spread, the bones are one of the most common places that it can go. The cancer cells release chemicals that damage bones making them weak and very prone to breakage. The pain may initially feel like a muscle pull or strain, but gradually worsens and can become severe as the cancer advances
Apart from the considerable pain and discomfort, lung cancer that has spread to the bones results in fractures that interfere with daily activities and lessens the quality of life for the patient.
Bone metastases from lung cancer, or lung cancer that has spread to the bones, affects 30 percent to 40 percent of people with advanced lung cancer.
Lung cancer spreads to the bones either through the bloodstream or through the vessels that carry infection-fighting cells through the body. Lung cancer is the third most common form of cancer to spread to bones. The most common bones that get affected are the spine, pelvis and the upper bones of the arms and legs.
10. Swelling of the face, arms or neck
The superior vena cava syndrome (SVC syndrome) is a complication of lung cancer that may cause swelling of the face, neck, and arms, as well as dilated veins in the neck and chest. This results when tumors in the lungs press on the superior vena cava which is the large blood vessel that returns blood from the head and arms back to the heart.
The tumor pressing on the svc causes blood to back up in the veins, therefore, causing the swelling in the face, neck, arms and upper chest. Bluish-Red skin color can sometimes be seen in the affected areas.
Early symptoms include swelling around the eye or in the face, particularly in the morning. Occasionally, superior vena cava obstruction can also cause symptoms of dizziness, headache, visual disturbances, fainting, and redness of the face, palms, or mucous membranes in the nose or mouth.
The American Cancer Society warns that any yellowing of the skin could be a symptom of lung cancer spreading to the pancreas or liver. This is because these two organs can be parts of the body that lung cancer cells can spread to.
Some patients may not show signs of cancer spreading to these parts. But if the tumor is large enough to block the bile ducts, the bile then builds up and flows back into the blood which could lead to yellow skin, as well as turning the white part of the eye yellow.
Depending on where the blockage is, jaundice can sometimes be relieved by putting a narrow tube into the bile duct to keep it open and allows the bile to flow normally into the small intestine.
12. Blood clots
Most believe that blood clots are associated with people who have serious heart diseases. Besides heart disease, lung cancer can also put a patient at higher risk for a blood clot. The type of blood clot linked to lung cancer is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
DVT is a blood clot that can form in the veins of your thighs, lower legs, or pelvis. If the blood clot breaks off and travels through your bloodstream to lodge in your lungs known as a pulmonary embolism and can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of blood clotting may include swelling in the arm or leg, pain in the arm or leg where the blood clot is located, trouble breathing, rapid hearts beat and low oxygen.
Again, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if any these signs and symptoms are present or the risk factors are present, it’s important to set a doctor’s appointment right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed