What Are Common Lung Cancer Symptoms and Treatments?

Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 6:48:04 PM ET
Lung Cancer 94463987 @HarvardHealth/Twitter

When it comes to monitoring your health, your heart and lungs are right at the top of the list of important organs you should focus on. Diseases that attack these organs can cause serious health problems, so the sooner you know about them, the sooner you can take action to treat them. Unfortunately, lung cancer isn’t always easy to detect in the early stages. This type of cancer starts in the lungs and often spreads to the lymph nodes and other organs before it’s detected.

Lung cancer is the deadliest type of cancer in the United States, and both men and women are at risk. Many people wrongly assume that you only get lung cancer if you smoke tobacco products. The truth is anyone can develop the disease, although smoking substantially increases the risk. Regardless of your personal history, learning the symptoms of lung cancer can help you recognize a potential problem much sooner. Consulting your doctor as soon as you develop symptoms is your first line of defense in forming a successful treatment plan.

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Early Signs of Lung Cancer

Many people don’t notice any symptoms at all when they first start to develop lung cancer, which makes diagnosing lung cancer in the early stages very challenging. The first noticeable symptoms to develop usually involve the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system, but many of these early symptoms are caused by other health conditions more often than lung cancer.

Still, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so potential symptoms should be evaluated by a doctor for a definitive diagnosis. Symptoms to watch for include a cough that gets progressively worse or becomes deeper with time and sounds similar to a “smoker’s cough.” If you cough up blood with your cough, it is definitely cause for concern.

In terms of breathing, you may experience some wheezing, shortness of breath or noisy breathing. If you don’t address it, you could eventually find it difficult to breathe normally. Recurring bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia also signal a potential problem, although that problem is not necessarily lung cancer. General symptoms to watch out for include fatigue, unexplained weight loss and poor appetite, as many types of cancers cause these common symptoms.

Signs of Advanced Lung Cancer

As the disease progresses, the mild early symptoms of lung cancer worsen, and other symptoms that have an impact on the entire body start to appear. For example, your bones might ache or even fracture easily, and you could experience swelling in your body, especially in your face, arms and neck. Some people experience frequent headaches that are sometimes accompanied by dizziness and numbness and tingling in the arms. If the cancer has spread to the liver, jaundice is a common symptom, and lumps could develop in the chest, neck and collarbone area.

Advanced lung cancer could also trigger various syndromes, including Horner Syndrome and nervous system disorders that cause problems swallowing and talking, muscle weakness and loss of balance. Blood clots are also a risk with lung cancer.

Diagnosing Lung Cancer

Keep in mind that most of these symptoms can easily indicate other health issues that are much less serious than cancer. You should always make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you realize that something isn’t right, but that doesn’t mean you should assume the worst. If your doctor believes your symptoms are cause for concern, then he or she will order an MRI, PET scan or CT scan.

Depending on the results of imaging tests, you may have to undergo a biopsy to check your lung tissue for cancer cells. If the test results show you do have cancer, your doctor will consult a pathologist, oncologist and other specialists to determine the best form of treatment for your specific case.

Types of Lung Cancer Treatment

The type of treatment you receive for lung cancer depends on many factors. Your doctor will first evaluate the type of lung cancer you have and the stage of the cancer. Your general health and your age are then considered to determine your tolerance to different treatments and their side effects. Your personal preferences are obviously a factor as well. Always talk openly with your medical team, which may include oncologists, pathologists, pulmonologists, radiologists and thoracic surgeons. If you have questions or objections, don’t be afraid to speak up.

Lung cancer patients typically undergo one or more of the four primary treatments for lung cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapy. Treatment usually starts with surgery to remove tumors and cancerous tissue from the body. Chemotherapy often follows surgery and may be administered intravenously or as an oral medication designed to shrink and kill cancer cells. Radiation treatments target and kill cancer cells using high-energy rays. Targeted therapy is a newer type of treatment that uses medications designed to specifically target and prevent the cellular changes that allow cancer to grow.

Alternative Treatment Options

Depending on your specific situation, you could opt to undergo an alternative form of treatment for lung cancer, especially if the traditional options don’t work. Some people choose to take part in clinical trials for new drugs, for example. These proposed treatments are potentially effective, but the final result — and all the potential side effects — aren’t yet known.

Other patients prefer to try natural alternative treatments, such as herbs, hypnosis, acupuncture, special teas or a specific diet. You can choose these methods instead of traditional treatments or in conjunction with traditional treatments. Just remember that alternative treatments as a whole have not been scientifically proven to work. Before trying an alternative treatment, be sure to talk to your doctor about any possible conflicts with your current medically prescribed treatments.

Resource Links:

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/about/what-is.html

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-symptoms.html

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/how-diagnosed.html

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/treating-non-small-cell/by-stage.html

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/treating-small-cell/by-stage.html