Lung Cancer Symptoms: Everything You Need to Know

By Dr. Sajjan Rajpurohit in Cancer Centre

Oct 17 , 2023 | 8 min read


Lung cancer is a severe form of cancer that starts in the lung tissues, usually stemming from the cells that line the airways. It's marked by unchecked cell proliferation and the ability to spread to different body parts via metastasis. Detecting lung cancer early is of utmost importance since it greatly increases the available treatment choices and enhances the odds of survival. When identified in its initial phases, surgical removal or targeted treatments can be successful, potentially leading to life-saving outcomes.

Lung Cancer First Signs

The early indicators of lung cancer are often subtle and easily go unnoticed. They CONSIST OF persistent cough, chest discomfort, wheezing, and recurrent respiratory infections like bronchitis or pneumonia. Unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and a hoarse voice are warning signs too. Some individuals may remain symptom-free initially. Early detection significantly improves treatment outcomes, so anyone experiencing these symptoms, especially those with risk factors like smoking, should promptly seek medical evaluation.

Common Lung Cancer Symptoms

In its early stages, lung cancer may present subtle symptoms that often go unnoticed. Following are the key lung cancer symptoms:

  • Wheezing: Wheezing is a characteristic symptom of lung cancer when tumours obstruct airways, causing an audible, high-pitched sound during breathing. It commonly manifests in advanced stages of the disease, but it can also serve as an early indicator of obstructive lung cancer. In this condition, tumours physically obstruct the airways, presenting a significant risk to respiratory function

  • Pneumonia: Lung tumours can disrupt normal airway function, making it easier for infectious agents to infiltrate the lungs. This increased susceptibility to respiratory infections can result in recurrent bouts of pneumonia.

  • Shortness Of Breath: Lung cancer often leads to shortness of breath, even during mild physical exertion. This symptom arises as tumours impede the flow of air within the lungs, reducing the efficiency of oxygen exchange.

  • Swollen Lymph Nodes: Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck or collarbone region may signal the spread of lung cancer to nearby lymphatic tissues suggesting advanced disease progression.

  • Chest Pain Or Discomfort: Persistent chest pain or discomfort can be a worrisome sign, potentially indicating advanced lung cancer. Tumours can exert pressure on the chest wall, leading to pain or discomfort. It can also indicate the spread of cancer to the ribs or nearby structures.

  • Loss Of Appetite: Lung cancer can disrupt the body's metabolic processes, leading to unexplained weight loss and a diminished appetite(cachexia). This symptom is often a result of the cancer's systemic effects.

  • Trouble Swallowing (Dysphagia): Lung cancer that spreads to the oesophagus can cause dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing leading to significant discomfort and nutritional challenges.

  • Coughing Up Blood (Hemoptysis): This can result from various causes, especially lung cancer. Even minimal traces of blood in the phlegm should not be ignored, as they may signal the presence of lung tumours or other serious respiratory disorders.

  • Unexplained Fatigue (Tiredness): Lung cancer can disrupt the body's normal energy balance, leading to persistent weakness and lethargy.

  • Shoulder And Bone Pain: Lung cancer that metastasizes to the bones can cause severe shoulder and bone pain.

  • Headaches: In advanced stages of lung cancer, the disease may metastasize to the brain, leading to headaches and various neurological symptoms.

Less Common Lung Cancer Symptoms

  • Hoarseness: It is a change in the voice characterized by a raspy or strained quality, and can be an early warning sign of lung cancer. In the context of lung cancer, hoarseness frequently occurs because tumours apply pressure to the recurrent laryngeal nerve or the nearby air passages. This pressure can interfere with the usual operation of the vocal cords, resulting in alterations in one's voice. Although hoarseness is not limited to lung cancer and can be caused by various factors like viral infections or vocal cord nodules, it becomes a cause for concern when it persists, especially when accompanied by other respiratory symptoms or risk factors.

  • Respiratory Infections: Frequent respiratory infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, can be a sign of compromised lung function and may indicate an underlying lung condition, including lung cancer. Lung tumours can cause inflammation in the lungs, making individuals more susceptible to respiratory infections.

  • Difficulty Swallowing: This can happen when lung cancer impacts adjacent structures, especially when it metastasizes to the oesophagus. Tumours can obstruct the passage of food or fluids, resulting in discomfort and potentially causing weight loss and nutritional problems. It should not be taken lightly, as it can profoundly affect a person's well-being and overall health.

  • Swelling In Neck Or Face: Swelling in the neck or face, often accompanied by pain or discomfort, can be a concerning sign and may indicate the spread of lung cancer to nearby lymph nodes or tissues. In medical terms, this is known as lymphadenopathy. When cancer cells travel through the lymphatic system, they can accumulate in lymph nodes and cause them to enlarge. Swollen lymph nodes, particularly in the neck or face, should be thoroughly evaluated as they often indicate advanced disease progression.

Non-small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC) Symptoms

NSCLC is a common type of lung cancer that originates in lung tissues, comprising various subtypes. Common symptoms of NSCLC are:

  • A lingering cough is a hallmark of NSCLC. It arises from tumour-induced airway irritation or obstruction.

  • NSCLC can impede lung function, leading to breathlessness even during mild exertion as tumors obstruct air passages.

  • Severe tiredness unrelated to activity levels can result from the NSCLC's systemic impact on the body.

  • Hoarseness can develop when tumours press against the recurrent laryngeal nerve or impact vocal cord function.

  • Metastatic NSCLC can spread to bones, causing severe pain, particularly in the back, hips, and chest.

  • Patients may experience headaches, confusion, weakness, or other neurological issues if NSCLC metastasizes to the brain.

Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC) Symptoms

Unlike NSCLC, SCLC is known for its aggressive nature and tendency to metastasize early. The following are its symptoms:

  • SCLC often starts with a persistent cough that doesn't respond to usual treatments. The cough may produce sputum or blood.

  • As tumours grow, they can obstruct air passages, leading to shortness of breath, even with minimal exertion.

  • SCLC can cause localized chest pain, which may be sharp or a dull ache.

  • SCLC can lead to a more rapid weight loss compared to NSCLC.

  • Like NSCLC, SCLC may also metastasize to the brain, resulting in symptoms such as headaches, confusion, weakness, or seizures.

  • SCLC can lead to swelling in the face and neck, a condition known as superior vena cava syndrome.

The Importance of Early Detection

The importance of early detection of lung cancer cannot be overstated. Identifying the symptoms of lung cancer early is vital because it can determine how the disease progresses and the likelihood of a person surviving.

Early detection of lung cancer allows for more effective treatment options. When the disease is diagnosed at an early stage, it is often localized and has not yet spread to other parts of the body. This means that curative treatment options, such as surgery or targeted therapies, are more viable. In contrast, when lung cancer is diagnosed in its advanced stages, treatment becomes more challenging, primarily focusing on symptom management and palliative care.

Moreover, early detection can improve the overall quality of life for individuals with lung cancer. It can lead to less invasive treatment approaches, fewer side effects, and a better chance of preserving lung function. Early intervention also allows the use of a wider range of treatment modalities, including clinical trials and novel therapies that may not be available to those with advanced disease.

Therefore, in the context of lung cancer, where the symptoms can often mimic other respiratory conditions or remain asymptomatic until later stages, recognizing warning signs is paramount.

Who is at Risk?

Lung cancer risk is influenced by various factors, and it's vital to recognize those most susceptible:

  • Regular smokers face the highest lung cancer risk, with the severity linked to the duration and intensity of smoking. Former smokers, even after quitting, maintain an elevated risk.

  • Those with a family history of lung cancer, especially cases diagnosed at a young age, may have increased risk, potentially due to genetic factors.

  • Exposure to radon gas and occupational hazards like asbestos or diesel exhaust can raise the risk.

  • Prolonged exposure to high levels of air pollution, common in urban settings, is another risk factor.

Despite the absence of traditional risk factors like smoking or family history, low-risk individuals are not immune to lung cancer. Awareness and early detection efforts are essential to ensure that no one underestimates their vulnerability and that potential cases are identified and treated promptly, maximizing chances of successful outcomes.


In conclusion, lung cancer is a formidable disease with a wide-ranging impact. Symptoms such as persistent cough, chest pain, and unexplained weight loss, often serve as early warning signs. While smokers and those with a family history face higher susceptibility, the unpredictable nature of this malignancy necessitates vigilance for all. Early detection and awareness of these symptoms can lead to improved outcomes, emphasizing that proactive healthcare is a top priority, regardless of risk status.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What does lung cancer feel like early on?

Early lung cancer may manifest as a persistent cough, chest pain, or unexplained weight loss.

2. Can chest x-ray show lung cancer?

Yes, a chest X-ray can reveal lung cancer, but more detailed imaging like CT scans is often needed.

3. How bad is chemo for lung cancer?

Chemo's severity varies, but it can cause side effects; individual experiences differ.

4. What age does lung cancer start?

Lung cancer risk increases with age, typically affecting people over 45, more so as they grow older.

5. Can blood tests detect lung cancer?

Blood tests can't diagnose lung cancer definitively but may indicate potential issues warranting further evaluation.

6. Is lung cancer curable?

Lung cancer is treatable, and outcomes vary; some cases are curable, especially if detected early.

7. What are the 3 types of lung cancer?

3 main types of lung cancer are non-small cell, small cell, and lung carcinoid tumours.

8. What is treatment for lung cancer?

Lung cancer treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.

9. How long can you live with lung cancer?

Life expectancy with lung cancer varies widely, depending on the stage and individual factors.

10. Does lung cancer spread quickly?

Lung cancer's growth rate varies; some types can spread quickly like SCLC.

11. What is the best scan to detect lung cancer?

CT scans are among the best tools to detect lung cancer, offering detailed images of lung tissue.