Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer in the United States for both men and women. And most patients are diagnosed in the latter stages of the disease.
But warning signs may not occur, or may not be obvious in the early stages of the disease. Some lung cancers do not cause any symptoms until they have spread. Nonetheless, some people with early lung cancer may have symptoms and brush them off as something harmless, says Miguel Villalona-Calero, M.D. , deputy director and chief scientific officer at Miami Cancer Institute .
“Symptoms of lung cancer are not very apparent in the beginning,” says Dr. Villalona. “For example, chronic coughs should not be ignored. I see a lot of patients who may develop bronchitis. They may go to the doctor, get some antibiotics and it gets a little better. But the condition continues. If you keep having persistent symptoms, you should get checked more deeply, especially if you are a smoker or ex-smoker or have other risk factors.”
Infographic by Irina de Souza
While smoking contributes to the majority of lung cancers, there are other risk factors, 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.
‘No One is Immune’
“Lung cancer screenings are focused on patients at high risk, but it could happen to anyone. No one is immune of the possibility of having lung cancer,” says Dr. Villalona.
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. Dr. Villalona says that 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, he said.
“We analyze every cancer patient that comes through the Institute for several genes for which we have treatments that are different than chemotherapies,” says Dr. Villalona. “We also have now immunotherapy, which has been used with some success in small cell lung cancers. But most of the successes have been with non-small cell lung cancers.”
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.