Symptoms And Early Signs Of Lung Cancer

The best way to improve the prognosis of any lung cancer patient is to detect the disease early and start treating it as soon as possible. That’s why knowing what signs and symptoms to look out for is essential. 

Unlike other cancer types, lung cancer can be difficult to detect in its early stages. In some cases, it is only when the tumor spreads to surrounding organs that symptoms appear. 

That said, there are early warning signs you can look out for. Many of these early signs are also symptoms of other diseases and infections. Therefore, getting them checked out often won’t result in a cancer diagnosis. 

However, if you think you are experiencing any symptoms, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor.

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A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse

It’s easy to write off coughs as being a symptom of the common cold or feeling a bit under the weather. However, you should always take a persistent or worsening cough seriously. 

If a cold or respiratory infection causes your cough, it will likely clear up on its own or with antibiotics in a few days. 

If your cough persists, then it’s important to check in with your doctor. A chronic cough could be a symptom of lung cancer - especially if you have been a smoker. 

Look out for the following:

  • Your cough is not clearing up 

  • Your cough is deep and hoarse 

  • You cough up blood or a large amount of mucus 

Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)

Coughing up blood is always something to be concerned about. The medical term for this is hemoptysis, and it refers to blood coughed up from the lungs. 

Coughing up blood or rusty-colored sputum is a common lung cancer symptom that you should not ignore. Between 7-10 % of lung cancer patients¹ will experience it. 

With further tests, your doctor will need to determine whether the blood originates from the lungs or upper respiratory tract. 

Chest pain that worsens when deep-breathing, coughing, or laughing

Some lung cancer patients report chest pain that spreads across the shoulder or back areas. This happens when a tumor grows and presses on your nerves. It can be particularly painful when coughing, laughing or taking in a deep breath. 

When chest pain is a lung cancer symptom, it is most often the result of enlarged lymph nodes and metastasis of the chest wall. 

This pain is experienced differently by different people. Some report sharp pain, but others may experience dull throbbing or intermittent pain. 

The nature of your chest pain is something you should bring up with your doctor during your appointment. Your doctor should also investigate any changes to your breathing.

In more advanced cases, when lung cancer spreads to other areas of the body, you may experience bone pain and headaches.


A hoarse voice is common in lung cancer patients and may even appear as an early symptom. 

In most cases, hoarseness results from the cancer tumor pressing on the laryngeal nerve (a branch of the vagus nerve that controls the larynx’s intrinsic muscles). 

If the laryngeal nerve becomes squashed by a tumor, it can paralyze the vocal cords, resulting in hoarseness of voice and difficulty in swallowing and speaking. 

It’s important to get hoarseness looked at by your doctor as soon as possible. They will determine what’s causing it and may be able to help alleviate or manage the symptoms.

Loss of appetite 

Loss of appetite is a common symptom of many diseases, including lung cancer. Statistically, almost half of all cancer patients² will experience loss of appetite. 

Loss of appetite can eventually lead to weight loss and malnutrition – a condition known as Cancer Anorexia-Cachexia Syndrome (CACS), which occurs when the body cannot get adequate nutrients. 

The leading causes of CACS include:

  • Gastrointestinal obstruction 

  • Malabsorption 

  • Surgery or treatment-related side effects (e.g., chemo or radiation therapy)

  • Psychological distress  

Unexplained weight loss

Sometimes lung cancer can cause unexplained weight loss. This is not always linked to a loss of appetite. 

Cancer cells use up a lot of energy and can alter the way the body metabolizes food. As a result, a lung-cancer sufferer may lose ten pounds or more without changing how much food they eat. 

Shortness of breath and excessive wheezing

You should always take changes in breathing seriously. Persistent shortness of breath, becoming easily winded, or a sudden onset of wheezing are all potential lung cancer symptoms.

Wheezing, in particular, is a very common lung cancer symptom and tends to become more pronounced as the disease advances.

Sometimes a person with lung cancer might notice that climbing the stairs is a little more taxing than usual. Or they may feel more out of breath when exercising than they typically would. 

Anywhere between 40% and 80% of lung cancer patients will experience respiratory symptoms at some point³. 

In lung cancer cases, these symptoms are typically the result of one of two events: 

  1. Lung cancer grows and blocks or narrows the airway

  2. Fluid builds up from a lung cancer tumor in the chest 

When your airways become obstructed, your breathing might sound rough, wheezy, or whistly. 

Feeling tired or weak     

We all feel tired from time to time. But it’s important to recognize when general tiredness becomes chronic or excessive fatigue. Tiredness that is not alleviated by rest is always a cause for concern. 

Many lung cancer patients will experience feelings of extreme fatigue. Studies have found⁴ cancer-related fatigue (CRF) to be one of the most challenging symptoms faced by patients with all types of cancers, including lung cancer.

Your fatigue level depends on a range of factors, including the cancer stage and its treatment type.

In other words, cancer-related fatigue can be primary (when the tumor causes the fatigue) or secondary (when the fatigue is caused by treatments, nutritional status, and comorbidities). 

Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back

Sometimes, recurring cases of respiratory infection (such as bronchitis and pneumonia) or chest pain are not recognized as early symptoms of lung cancer. As such, people tend to put off seeing a doctor for further diagnostic testing.

That’s not to say that every respiratory infection is a sign of lung cancer. Typically, your respiratory infections indicate lung cancer when you also:

  • Have a chronic cough that persists for more than two months and won’t go away even after treatment 

  • Cough up blood or blood-stained mucus (even in small quantities)

  • Feel short of breath all or most of the time (suggesting a tumor is restricting the passage of air through your airway) 

  • Have a hoarse or raspy voice 

  • Experience chest pain

Late-stage signs

Catching and diagnosing lung cancer early will dramatically improve your prognosis.

However, since lung cancer can be difficult to detect in its early stages, diagnoses are often made when it has already reached an advanced stage and has spread to other parts of the body. 

Signs and symptoms typical of late-stage lung cancers include: 

  • Bone pain – this often occurs in the back or hips 

  • Jaundice – if cancer spreads to the liver, it causes a yellowing of the skin and eyes

  • Swollen lymph nodes – the body’s immune system cells become swollen 

  • Compromised central nervous system – this is a sign that cancer has spread to the brain. It often presents as headaches, numbness, dizziness, difficulty balancing, general weakness, and sometimes seizures. 

Associated syndromes could be warning signs 

In some cases, lung cancer can cause you to develop a range of associated syndromes. These syndromes and their symptoms can be critical early indicators of lung cancer. 

Horner Syndrome

Horner Syndrome happens when cancer develops in the upper part of the lungs. These cancer tumors (technically known as Pancoast tumors) are typical of non-small cell lung cancers.

Pancoast tumors affect the nerves that control movement in the eye and face. As such, patients with Horner Syndrome typically develop one or more of the following symptoms: 

  • Drooping of the upper eyelid 

  • A smaller pupil in one eye 

  • They stop sweating on one side of the face 

  • Severe shoulder pain 

Superior Vena Cava (SVC) Syndrome

The SVC is a large vein that carries blood from our head, down our arms, to our heart and passes by the right lung and lymph nodes along the way. When a tumor presses on the SVC vein, it can cause obstruction of blood flow in the veins, resulting in swelling and discoloration to the face, chest, neck, and arms. 

Other associated symptoms include dizziness, headaches, or even loss of consciousness. 

Paraneoplastic Syndrome

Paraneoplastic syndromes are a result of substances secreted by some types of lung cancer. These substances behave a bit like hormones in the body. 

When these substances enter the bloodstream, they can impact the surrounding organs and tissue. 

Paraneoplastic syndromes like syndrome of inappropriate ADH secretion (SIADH), Cushing Syndrome, and Lambert Eaton Syndrome are typically caused by small cell lung cancers, though there are exceptions.

When to talk to your doctor

It can be difficult to know if your symptoms are related to lung cancer or not. Your doctor will be able to carry out diagnostic testing to find out what is causing these symptoms and whether any lung cancer is present. 

Some people feel that their symptoms aren’t serious enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, but any significant change to your health should always be checked out.  

The lowdown 

Understanding the symptoms is the best way to detect lung cancer early and achieve the best possible prognosis. It can, however, be a daunting time for those who have received a lung cancer diagnosis themselves or know somebody who has.

Learn more about what causes lung cancer, so you can help better manage your risk.

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