As with nearly any disease, the symptoms of lung cancer can overlap those of many other conditions. Still, there are a number of common things that anyone can watch out for.
Coughing is a common behavior. We do it spontaneously when anything irritates the airways. But a new cough that persists for a few weeks in the absence of a cold should be checked out. That is especially true for those with a history of smoking and/or cancer in the immediate family. Such coughs can get worse over time, again not leading to any specific diagnosis. To obtain a definitive diagnosis requires a physician.
One distinctive indicator is coughing up blood. Any rupture in the blood vessels along the airways can produce that. It can also be completely irrelevant, since a lesion in the throat or sinuses may be the root cause. But lung carcinomas, as they are called, are a common result of hemoptysis and occurs in a large percentage of cases.
Prolonged coughing for any reason can produce chest pain. But chest pain in the absence of coughing is also cause for concern. It may be simple heart burn, and often is. It may be unrelated to lung tumors, produced by an incipient heart condition. But the pain produced by lung tumors tends to be dull and persists over weeks. Since it occurs in about 25% of patients, it is one more suggestive piece of evidence. As a common symptom of lung cancer, it should be reported to your doctor.
Shortness of breath and wheezing are two more common signs of lung cancer. As tumors spread they can block airways and produce fluid in the lungs, a condition known as ‘pleural effusion’. Wheezing can result from inflammation that often accompanies lung cancer. Unfortunately, here again, these two symptoms can occur with a variety of diseases and only a professional diagnosis can say which is responsible.
Similarly, respiratory infections can result from bacteria, fungi, and other invasive organisms in the pulmonary system. But repeated infections that persist, as occurs in bronchitis or pneumonia, are often the result of underlying lung carcinomas.
Since cancers can spread – a process called metastasis – tumors that begin in the bronchi can produce other symptoms as they spread and affect other organs. Bone pain in the vertebrae, for example, can occur when tumor cells migrate into the soft material inside bones. Lung cancer that spreads to the brain can affect vision.
But self-diagnosis can be misleading. Lung cancer, even when it spreads through the lymph system to affect other areas, may produce no symptoms at all. Metastasized tumors may grow in the adrenal glands or the liver, yet produce no symptoms until long after other areas are affected. Whether the signs become obvious depends greatly on how large those tumors become.
Indeed, about 25% of patients in whom lung cancer is found have no symptoms at the time of initial diagnosis. The carcinomas are often discovered only as part of a chest x-ray or other routine procedures. As such, it is important that regular check-ups include x-rays and other work, especially for those who smoke and/or have a history of cancer in the family.