9 Uncommon Signs of Lung Cancer You Need to Know About

Updated: Nov. 06, 2018

Most people know to be suspicious of a stubborn cough—but that’s just one of the worrisome signs of lung cancer

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Detecting lung cancer

Each year, more than 234,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women, according to the American Cancer Society, with more people dying of lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. Smokers are at greatest risk, but 10 to 15 percent of people with lung cancer have never smoked. In the earliest stages, there are no signs of  lung cancer, which is why screening is so important for people who are at higher risk: According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (it reviews medical screenings), smokers—and former smokers—should get annual screenings between the ages of 55 and 80. However, as the cancer progresses, symptoms surface—some of which you might not expect. Learn the 11 facts doctors wish you knew about lung cancer.

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A change in a cough you’ve had for a while

A cough that doesn’t go away can be one of the signs of lung cancer. So can a cough that changes. If you begin coughing up blood or rust-colored phlegm, see your doctor right away. Another warning sign: pain on one side of your chest (called unilateral chest pain), as opposed to the generalized chest pain associated with heart attacks, says Todd Weiser, MD, chief of thoracic surgery at White Plains Hospital in New York.

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Unintentional weight loss

Losing ten or more pounds within three months without trying can signal many types of cancer, including lung cancer, says Carsten Schroeder, MD, thoracic surgeon at the Georgia Cancer Center. A loss of appetite can trigger the weight loss, or a tumor may disrupt the body’s metabolism. Check out 20 reasons weight loss could be a serious problem.

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There are many reasons you could experience a hoarse throat, ranging from an infection to enthusiastic cheering at a football game. “But if it doesn’t go away after a week or two, it should be looked at by an ear, nose, and throat doctor,” says Dr. Schroeder.

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Shortness of breath

It’s easy to blame heavy breathing after you climb the stairs on being out of shape or because you’ve put on a few pounds. But if you’re having a hard time breathing after normal activities—especially in situations that didn’t used to tax you—it’s smart to see your doctor, because it is among the signs of lung cancer. “Some cancers that start in the lung spread to the inside of the rib cage,” says Dr. Weiser. “Tumors secrete a lot of fluid that gets pushed around and can compromise the patient’s ability to breathe.” Make sure you know about these 6 smart habits that can help prevent lung cancer.

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Extreme thirst and frequent urination

In rare cases, tumors in the lung can secrete substances that create a high level of calcium in the blood, and that can leave you feeling very thirsty and cause you to urinate more often, says Dr. Weiser. If you find yourself drinking more than usual, take note, because it could be one of the signs of lung cancer. Don’t miss these other 12 symptoms of lung disease you might ignore.

8 Uncommon Signs of Lung Cancer You Need to Know About

Swollen cheeks and neck

Tumors in the lung can secrete hormones that, in rare cases, cause patients to look as if they’ve taken steroids, Dr. Weiser says. Signs include weight gain, a fat deposit in the top of the back, and facial swelling that’s sometimes referred to as a “moon face.” “If you are able to remove the tumor, all those symptoms go away,” he says. Also take note of these 7 signs of lung cancer you might be ignoring.

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Speech problems

When a tumor spreads from the lungs to the brain, patients can experience seizures and speech problems. “Some patients are diagnosed with lung cancer that way,” says Dr. Weiser. “The lung cancer isn’t detected until the neurologic symptoms appear.” Learn the 15 amazing things that happen to your body when you quit smoking.

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Flattened fingers

Known as digital clubbing, this symptom could be one of the signs of lung cancer. Your fingertips or the ends of your toes may enlarge, and you may see a change in the angle where the nails emerge. “Some patients will have pronounced curvature of the fingernails,” Dr. Weiser says, though he stresses that this is rare. Read up on the 50 health symptoms you should never ignore.

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The importance of early detection

Both Dr. Schroeder and Dr. Weiser emphasize that because most people with lung cancer do not experience symptoms in the earliest stages, when treatment can be more successful, it’s vital that those at high risk for the disease get a CT scan of the chest every year starting at 55. (Chest X-rays are not useful for diagnosing lung cancer, they say.) “Tumor size matters,” says Dr. Schroeder. “If we can detect the tumor when it’s small and we can intervene early, the chance of survival increases greatly.” Learn about 7 more cancers that are notoriously difficult to catch early.