When it comes to lung cancer, warning signs may not occur, or may not be obvious in the early stages of the disease. That’s one key reason most patients are diagnosed in the latter stages of the disease.
Symptoms of lung cancer, the deadliest cancer in the U.S. for both men and women, may not be very apparent in the beginning. For example, chronic coughs should not be ignored, doctors say. This is especially true with smokers and ex-smokers.
Moreover, while smoking is by far the biggest risk factor (about 80 percent of cases), there are other risk factors for lung cancer, such as exposure to second-hand smoke, inhaling radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas), exposures to asbestos or other cancer-causing chemicals in the workplace, and air pollution, and a family history of lung cancer.
“If you are at high risk for lung cancer, you should never ignore health issues that are out of the ordinary, such as persistent cough, hoarseness, feeling more exhausted than usual, and unexplained weight loss,” said John Roberts, M.D. , a board certified thoracic surgeon with Lynn Cancer Institute  located in Boca Raton, Florida, part of Baptist Health. “Smokers and ex-smokers should get their checkups and be screened for lung cancer. But symptoms apply to everyone.”
No One is Immune
While lung cancer screenings are focused on patients at high risk, no one is immune of the possibility of developing lung cancer.
If you go to your doctor when you first notice symptoms, your cancer might be diagnosed at an earlier stage, when treatment is more likely to be effective. About 70 percent of diagnosed lung cancer cases have progressed to either stage 3 (25 percent) or stage 4 (45 percent). Stage 4 is the most advanced stage of lung cancer. By then, the cancer has usually spread to both lungs, to fluid in the area around the lungs, or to another part of the body, such as the liver or other organs.
But even for late-stage patients, there are effective treatments available. Generally, most of the treatment advances have been with non-small cell lung cancer, which represents about 85 percent of cases.
Here are the most common lung cancer symptoms, according to the American Cancer Society:
- A cough that does not go away or gets worse;
- Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm);
- Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing;
- Weight loss and loss of appetite;
- Shortness of breath;
- Feeling tired or weak;
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back;
- New onset of wheezing.
Many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor and be treated, if needed.
Infographic by Irina de Souza