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What are the Signs, Symptoms and Treatments of Lung Cancer?

Every year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined, making lung cancer the leading cause of cancer death among men and women alike. [1] Despite the grave nature of this disease, many people who receive treatment in the earliest stages of lung cancer are cured. Catching lung cancer early means you need to have a keen awareness of your body and recognize unusual changes as soon as possible. This ultimately leads to earlier treatment, which is key to surviving the disease.

Causes of Lung Cancer

lung cancerLung cancer occurs when cells in the lung mutate, or change. Although there are a number of different factors that can cause cell mutation, breathing in dangerous, toxic substances – even if it was many years ago – is the most common.[2]

By far, the leading toxic substance that causes lung cancer is cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke contains deadly chemicals referred to as carcinogens that are known to cause cancer. Other causes of lung cancer include:2

  • Radon – a colorless, odorless gas that naturally exists in soil.
  • Hazardous chemicals – including, but certainly not limited to, asbestos, arsenic, uranium, cadmium and chromium.
  • Particle pollution – a mixture of very tiny liquid and solid particles found in the air we breathe.
  • Genetics – a family history of lung cancer places you at higher risk for the disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Many times, lung cancer doesn’t cause symptoms until it has spread to other parts of the body. But some people become aware of symptoms earlier, before the cancer has a chance to spread.

If you notice any of the following signs and symptoms of lung cancer, it’s important that you go to the doctor right away. Being diagnosed in the earliest stages of the disease leads to earlier treatment, when it’s most likely to be more effective. Check out the signs and symptoms of lung cancer below:[3]

  • Persistent cough that may worsen over time
  • Hemoptysis (coughing up blood or rust-colored mucus)
  • Chest pain that gets worse when you cough, laugh or take a deep breath
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, that are unshakeable and repetitive
  • New emergence of wheezing

If lung cancer spreads to other areas, symptoms may also include:3

  • Bone pain, such as in the back or hips.
  • Changes within the nervous system that may result in headaches, weakness, numbness of an extremity, dizziness and problems with balance or seizures from lung cancer that’s spread to the brain or spinal cord.
  • Jaundice or yellowing of the eyes and/or skin secondary to lung cancer that’s spread to the liver.
  • Collections of immune cells that manifest as lumps near the surface of the skin caused by lung cancer that’s spread to the skin or lymph nodes.

Most of the time, the signs and symptoms mentioned above are symptoms of something other than lung cancer. Regardless, it’s still important to see your doctor when you experience any of them so she can determine their cause and offer the most effective treatment possible.3

Syndromes Caused by Lung Cancer

Sometimes, lung cancer causes syndromes, or groups of very specific symptoms such as:3

  • Horner’s syndrome – cancer in the top part of the lungs that can sometimes affect your eye and face, leading to drooping or weakness of one eyelid, a smaller pupil in that eye, reduced or absent sweating on the affected side of the face and severe shoulder pain.
  • Superior vena cava (SVC) syndrome – swelling of the face, neck, arms and upper chest that may also cause a bluish-red tint to the skin in this area. These symptoms are caused by a tumor pressing on the SVC, the large vein that carries blood from the head and arms back to the heart. It can also cause headaches, dizziness and a change in your level of consciousness if it affects the brain. SVC syndrome can be fatal, so it needs to be treated right away.
  • Paraneoplastic syndromes – sometimes, lung cancers can produce hormone-like substances that enter the blood steam leading to problems with outlying tissues and organs. Referred to as paraneoplastic, these syndromes are often the first signs of lung cancer. Some of the more common paraneoplastic syndromes include SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone), Cushing syndrome, Lambert-Eaton syndrome and other nervous system disorders, hypercalcemia (high blood calcium levels), excess growth/thickening of some bones and gynomastia (excess breast tissue in men).

Lung Cancer Treatment Options

As we learned above, early recognition of lung cancer symptoms leads to earlier diagnosis and treatment, which often improves survival. There are a number of lung cancer treatments available; the mode of treatment that works best for you depends upon the type of lung cancer you have and how far it has spread. The following treatment options are the most common:[4]

  • Surgery to remove all or part of your cancerous lung tissue.
  • Chemotherapy using special medications to shrink or kill the cancer.
  • Radiation therapy using high-energy rays to kill the cancer.
  • Targeted therapy using drugs to block the growth and spread of cancer cells.

For more information about signs, symptoms and treatment of lung cancer, talk to your doctor, pulmonologist or oncologist.

[1] American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Lung Cancer. Last revised January 4, 2018.                        

[2] American Lung Association. What Causes Lung Cancer? Accessed May 24, 2018.

[3] American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer. Last revised February 22, 2016.

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated? Last updated July 21, 2014.

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