Symptoms of Lung Cancer and When to See a Doctor

Lung cancer symptoms are often misleading and may be mistaken for other things. While lung cancer is one of the most common causes of death in the United States, problems with the lungs are not always cancer. Lung cancer may be suspected if you are at higher risk from family history of lung cancer, smoking, or exposed to environmental risks (asbestos, coal mining, radiation, and pollution).

If you are at risk for lung cancer, and have symptoms, you will need to check with your doctor and have lab work and testing. Don't wait to get evaluated. Early treatment could save your life. This article will help you understand more about the symptoms of lung cancer and what to do if you have any lingering symptoms you are unsure about.

Signs of Lung Cancer

If you have lung cancer symptoms, it may be hard to tell if it is related to an illness or actual cancer. When one or more of the following symptoms are persistent, then you need to be evaluated for other long-term illnesses like, cancer or even other things that may need treatment. Signs of lung cancer include:

  • Chest and/or back pain without a cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Intense and persistent coughing
  • Increase or change in color of sputum
  • Wheezing
  • Chronic bronchitis or frequent pneumonia
  • Hoarseness
  • Blood in mucus

Advanced lung cancer may start to cause general whole body symptoms if the cancer begins to spread. You may have one or more of the above symptoms along with:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Appetite loss
  • Muscle wasting
  • Joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Memory loss and trouble thinking
  • Blood clots and bleeding elsewhere in the body
  • Swelling in the face or neck

When to See a Doctor

Understanding what lung cancer symptoms are may help you get medical attention early on. The earlier lung cancer is treated, the better the chances of survival. Symptoms of lung cancer can mimic other lung conditions like pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, or chronic smoker's cough. If you experience any of these symptoms for longer than a usual period of time, they need to be reported to your doctor. Use the following rules of thumb with the corresponding symptoms.

You should call 9-1-1 or go to an emergency room right away if you experience the following: 

  • Chest Pain - Chest pain with or without a cough needs immediate medical attention. It could be a sign of a heart attack or other heart related condition. It may also signal a blood clot that has traveled to the lungs. This can be life threatening and needs attention right away. Do not wait.
  • Shortness of Breath - Shortness of breath or trouble breathing needs immediate medical attention. This can be related to many different things, or advancing stages of lung cancer.
  • Coughing Up Blood - Coughing up large amounts of blood is a medical emergency. Small amounts of blood in the mucus may happen with excessive coughing, but if it looks like you are bleeding from your lungs, get help right away.
  • Feeling Dizzy - If you stand up and feel like you are going to pass out or feel dizzy, you need to get checked out right away. This can be caused by low oxygen levels in the body and may mean your lungs are not functioning correctly.

You should get ahold of your doctor for an appointment as soon as possible if you have the following symptoms:

  • Wheezing or Chronic Cough - If you have a cough for a long time or start to wheeze, you should call your doctor for an appointment.
  • Neck Swelling - Neck swelling, appearance of lymph nodes, or swelling in the facial area warrants a check-up with your doctor.
  • Chest Pain When Coughing - If you get mild pain in your chest with coughing or breathing, it is a good idea to let your doctor know. This can be due to things like pulled muscles, excessive coughing, or may be a sign of cancer. Only your doctor can rule out anything serious.
  • Pneumonia - Pneumonia after a viral or bacterial respiratory illness is a sign of a weak immune system and unhealthy lungs. Your doctor needs to document cases of recurrent pneumonia to see if you need further evaluation.
  • Fatigue and Weight Loss - Long standing fatigue and weight loss can be a sign of cancer anywhere in the body. Coupled with other symptoms listed above, you need to be evaluated for lung disease or cancer. Fatigue after a respiratory illness should never last longer than a few days to up to 4 weeks.

Treatments for Lung Cancer

Treatments for lung cancer depend on the stage and if the cancer has spread to other organs, or is recurring after treatment previously. There are different treatments for each of these situations and can include:

  • Surgery (Tumor Only)
  • Photodynamic Therapy, Laser Treatments, Internal Radiation
  • Surgery with Lymph Node Removal
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy (Causes the body’s immune system to fight the cancer)
  • Targeted Therapy (Blocks new blood vessels that contribute to cancer cell growth)
  • Genetic Testing and Targeted Therapy (Treatments that target the cancer genes themselves to render them inactive)

What Is the Survival Rate for Lung Cancer?

The good news is that lung cancer detected early has a 55 percent five year survival rate. This means if lung cancer symptoms are detected early and the cancer has not spread, there is a good chance. The issue is, only about 16 percent of the cases are detected in time. What raises the risk of late diagnosis is other health conditions related to the lungs such as emphysema, COPD, Asthma, chronic pneumonia. Many people mistake lung cancer signs for a flare up of their existing lung disease. 

The average survival rate for lung cancer at five-years is around 17.7 percent, one of the lowest survival rates of all cancer. Due to lack of early diagnosis, over half of the people diagnosed do not survive one year. This is why detecting symptoms early so that treatment can be started right away, and improve chances of survival.

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