Oncologist-approved cancer information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology
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Lung Cancer

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 6/2013
Symptoms and Signs

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ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages in this guide, use the colored boxes on the right side of your screen, or click “Next” at the bottom

People with lung cancer may experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes people with lung cancer do not show any of these symptoms. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not cancer. If you are concerned about a symptom or sign on this list, please talk with your doctor.

  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain, if a tumor spreads to the lining of the lung or other parts of the body near the lungs
  • Loss of appetite
  • Coughing up phlegm or mucus
  • Coughing up blood

Your doctor will ask you questions about the symptoms you are experiencing to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis. This may include how long you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s) and how often.

For people with lung cancer who have no symptoms, their lung cancer may be noticed on a chest x-ray or CT scan performed for some other reason, such as checking for heart disease. Most people with lung cancer are diagnosed when the tumor grows, takes up space, or begins to cause problems with parts of the body near the lungs. A lung tumor may also make fluid that can build up in the lung or the space around the lung or push the air out of the lungs and cause the lung to collapse. This prevents oxygen from getting in the body and carbon dioxide from leaving the body by blocking the flow of air into the lungs, or by using up the space normally required for oxygen to come in and carbon dioxide to go out of the lung.

Although lung cancer can metastasize (spread) anywhere in the body, it most commonly spreads to the lymph nodes, other parts of the lungs, bones, brain, liver, and structures near the kidneys called the adrenal glands. Metastases (spread to more than one area) from lung cancer can cause further breathing difficulties, bone pain, abdominal or back pain, headache, weakness, seizures, and/or speech difficulties. Rarely, a lung tumor can release hormones that cause problems such as low blood sodium levels or high blood calcium levels.

Symptoms such as fatigue, malaise (feeling out-of-sorts or unwell), and loss of appetite are not necessarily caused by metastases. Cancer anywhere in the body can cause a person to feel unwell in a general way. Loss of appetite can cause weight loss. Fatigue and weakness can further worsen a person’s ability to breathe.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms and side effects remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

Choose “Next” (below, right) to continue reading this guide to learn about what tests and scans you may have to learn more about the cause of your symptoms. Or, use the colored boxes located on the right side of your screen to visit any section.

© 2005-2014 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). All rights reserved worldwide.

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