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Symptoms and Risks of Lung Cancer

Like many cancers, lung cancer can be hard to detect. Early lung cancer usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, so the disease often goes undiagnosed in its earliest stages. In advanced stages, lung cancer can show more visible signs, including affecting how your lungs work.

Symptoms of lung cancer

Signs of lung cancer can vary depending on the stage and type of lung cancer:

  • Chest pain that worsens with coughing, laughing or heavy breathing
  • Coughing that doesn’t go away or that gets worse
  • Coughing up blood
  • Frequent lung infections that don’t improve or keep coming back (like recurring pneumonia or bronchitis)
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Joint or bone pain
  • Persistent weakness or fatigue

Lung cancer can spread to the chest and other parts of the body, which can cause additional symptoms. For example, if cancer spreads from the lungs to the spine or bones, symptoms may include pain in the back or other bones or weakness in the arms or legs. If lung cancer spreads to the brain, possible symptoms could include seizures, headaches or vision changes. Some people may also develop paraneoplastic syndromes, which are a set of symptoms that often includes high calcium, low sodium, Cushing syndrome or others.

Some types of lung cancer cause a specific set of symptoms called a syndrome. Examples of these syndromes include:

  • Horner syndrome: Drooping eyelid and smaller pupil affecting the same eye, combined with reduced sweating on that side of the face. Sometimes these symptoms occur with shoulder pain as well.
  • Paraneoplastic syndromes: Hormone-like substances cause problems in areas where the cancer hasn’t spread, like the kidneys or central nervous system. Cushing syndrome and SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone) are both types of paraneoplastic syndromes.
  • Superior vena cava syndrome: Swelling in the face, neck, arms or upper chest, sometimes seen with a bluish skin color. May also include headaches and dizziness.

Lung cancer risk factors

Because most lung cancer is caused by smoking, it can sometimes be prevented. To prevent lung cancer, it’s important to stop smoking — or to stop being around someone else’s smoke. Even if you have smoked a long time, quitting can lower your chances of getting lung cancer. You also can lower your risk by ending your exposure to secondhand smoke. If you already have lung cancer, quitting can make your treatment work better and help you live longer.

However, nonsmokers can also get lung cancer. Around 20% of lung cancer patients are nonsmokers. Radon exposure is estimated to be the second leading cause of lung cancer.

Other risk factors for developing lung cancer include:

  • Age: 70 is the average age of people who receive a lung cancer diagnosis.
  • Exposure to environmental toxins: arsenic, asbestos, radioactive dust, radon or radiation.
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke: If you live with a smoker, you have a 2 to 3 times higher risk for lung cancer compared with a person who lives in a nonsmoking environment.
  • Gender: Men are more likely to develop lung cancer than women.
  • Race: African American men are more likely to develop lung cancer than men of any other racial group.
Lung cancer patient Jeanne Ackerson.

The power of hope

As a smoker, Jeanne knew it wasn’t good news when her doctor found a shadow on her chest X-ray. But thanks to a clinical trial, hope was in sight.

Jeanne's story

Start your path today.

Your journey to health starts here. Call 913-588-1227 or request an appointment at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

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