4 Sneaky Signs Of Lung Cancer You Should Know

Don't ignore these potential warning signs of lung cancer.
Don't ignore these potential warning signs of lung cancer. MirageC via Getty Images

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, accounting for 1 out of every 5 cancer fatalities. Early detection is imperative for increasing survival with lung cancer before the disease spreads beyond the lungs. 

Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Forcerecommends yearly lung cancer screening for adults aged 50 to 80 years who have a 20-pack-year smoking history, and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. 

The screening test used for lung cancer is called low-dose computed tomography, or a low-dose CT scan. During the test, you lie down on a table and a machine scans your chest in order to take images of your lungs. It only takes a few minutes to do and doesn’t cause any pain.

Despite the screening recommendations, only 5% of people who are eligible to get screened for lung cancer are actually getting screened, said Chi-Fu Jeffrey Yang, a thoracic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and founder of the American Lung Cancer Screening Initiative

And even though screenings are highly recommended for those who smoke or have smoked in the past, nonsmokers can get lung cancer too. That’s why it’s imperative for people to bring up issues like family history, living environments or new symptoms with their primary care doctor.

“Lung cancer in people who never smoked could be related to living with a smoker, or potentially related to genetic factors, particularly if they have a first degree relative who had lung cancer and never smoked,” said Daniel J. Boffa,the clinical director of the Center for Thoracic Cancers at Yale Cancer Center. ”There are also environmental risk factors such as radon, arsenic in the soil, and even asbestos, which increase the risk for lung cancer.”

Below, we spoke to lung experts about the sneaky signs of lung cancer that you should know about: 

No symptoms at all

Let’s start with the most concerning point: People with early stage lung cancer often experience no symptoms. Oftentimes, when the lung cancer has advanced to stage 3 and 4, that’s when issues appear. 

“That is why lung cancer screening is so important. Lung cancer screening can discover lung cancer at earlier stages when patients have no symptoms and are still feeling well, and when it is easier to treat,” Yang said. 

Chest pain

Lung cancer symptoms can vary among people. “When lung cancers do cause symptoms, they can come from the effect the cancer is having on parts of the chest, which could lead to pain in the chest, coughing up blood or shortness of breath,” Boffa said. 

However, he notes that these symptoms are not exclusively related to lung cancer. According to Boffa, “Most of the time when someone has these symptoms, they are related to something else, which makes diagnosing lung cancer so difficult, particularly in younger people.”

A lingering cough – especially without another illness – might be a red flag to speak with your doctor.
A lingering cough – especially without another illness – might be a red flag to speak with your doctor. ArtistGNDphotography via Getty Images

Persistent cough

While coughs are not unique to lung cancer, a cough that persists for weeks (especially without other illness) can be a cause for concern. A persistent cough is usually associated with more advanced lung cancer like stage 3 or 4, Yang said.

A lingering cough can also be a symptom of pneumonia. Between 50-70% of people with lung cancer develop pneumonia (a lung infection) due to a weakened immune system. 

Pain in other body parts 

“Once lung cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it can cause symptoms in those areas, such as headaches, or pain near bones in the back or pelvis,” Boffa said.

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to visit your medical provider to understand the underlying causes and get treatment if needed. While none of them on their own are an extreme cause for panic ― or mean you definitely have cancer ― it’s always best to get checked out.