Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer produces such quiet symptoms in its early stages that it is typically diagnosed at an advanced stage. Later in the disease, people often notice fatigue, poor appetite, and unexplained weight loss. These symptoms are common in many forms of cancer.

Symptoms that are specific to the growth and spread of lung cancer may include coughing up red or rust-colored phlegm, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Sometimes an infection in the lung behind the tumor that is obstructing the airway produces a fever.

Invasion of cancerous cells into the pleura or other nearby structures can produce pain in the chest, shoulders, or arms. If the cancer spreads to surrounding tissues, it can lead to enlarged lymph nodes in the chest or neck and impingement of various nerves, resulting in hoarseness. Because of narrowing of the esophagus, a person may have difficulty swallowing. There may be swelling of the neck and face from blockage of blood flow from these areas to the heart.

In about 30 percent of patients, lung cancer also causes clubbing of the fingers (a thickening of the fingertips and increased curvature of the fingernails).

Lung cancer often spreads to the liver and bone marrow, where it can interfere with blood cell formation. When it spreads to the bones it causes pain and fractures, and when it spreads to the brain it produces neurological symptoms such as seizures.

Some lung cancer patients with small cell tumors develop Cushing's syndrome, which produces such complications as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and face roundness. Another possible complication of lung cancer is hypercalcemia—excessive blood levels of calcium—which can cause fatigue, muscle weakness, confusion, drowsiness and coma.

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 14 Sep 2011

Last Modified: 27 Jan 2015