Lung cancer: detecting symptoms early
In more advanced stages, lung cancer triggers symptoms such as bloody sputum, shortness of breath and rapid weight loss. Initially, many patients show no or only unspecific symptoms, such as coughing and chest pain. This is why lung cancer is often discovered late. Here you can read all the important information on the topic: How do you recognize lung cancer?
Lung cancer: symptoms depend on stage
Lung cancer (bronchial carcinoma) is insidious: in its early stages it often causes no or only unspecific symptoms. This includes, for example, prolonged coughing. However, it also occurs in many other diseases, for example chronic bronchitis. Therefore, it is usually not recognized as a possible lung cancer sign.
Other first signs of lung cancer cannot be clearly attributed to this disease either. This applies, for example, to reduced performance, fatigue and light fever. Such general complaints also occur with various infections, such as a cold. Many people affected therefore do not take them seriously.
In advanced stages, lung cancer can cause symptoms such as rapid weight loss, bloody sputum and breathing difficulties. They are often triggered by accompanying infections.
Lung cancer symptoms at a glance
In summary, here are the main possible signs of lung cancer:
- “Smoker’s bronchitis”: persistent coughing with sputum after years of tobacco use
- persistent cough, which does not improve even after several weeks and suddenly changes
- persistent hoarseness
- Bronchitis or cold that does not get better despite antibiotics
- Shortness of breath
- constant chest pain
- nocturnal sweating
- Ejection with or without blood admixtures
- Swelling of the neck or face
- lack of appetite or severe weight loss
- Fever episodes
- general feeling of illness and weakness
- neurological symptoms such as headaches, visual disorders, paralysis
- intense pain
If breathing difficulties persist, the body no longer receives enough oxygen. This chronic oxygen deficiency is called chronic hypoxia (or hypoxemia) by the medical profession. A slight shortage of oxygen is not yet life-threatening. However, it makes the patient less efficient and less resilient.
Over time, the chronic undersupply of oxygen becomes noticeable on the fingers: The finger ends are then thickened and raised (drum flail finger). The fingernails appear round and strongly arched outwards (watch glass nails). These changes are generally a sign that the body is getting too little oxygen. They are therefore only indirect signs of lung cancer. Other diseases can also be behind it.
Pain is an important symptom in advanced lung cancer: the tumour can grow out of the lung. It often spreads out in the direction of the spinal column, for example. Therefore, lung cancer can cause back pain. When bones are attacked by cancer cells (bone metastases), patients report arthritis-like pain.
If the cancerous tumour presses against the oesophagus, a difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia) can develop. In some patients, the lung tumour presses on the nerve that controls the movement of the vocal cords (nervus recurrens). This leads to persistent hoarseness.
Protruding neck veins are also a possible sign. Lung cancer can cause a so-called upper influence congestion: Because the tumour pushes the large upper vena cava (vena cava superior), the blood no longer flows unhindered from the venous vessels of the upper half of the body to the heart. It then accumulates in the veins of the head, neck and arms.
Neurological symptoms in lung cancer indicate that the cancer cells have attacked the brain and metastasized here. The patients then suffer from headaches, visual and balance disorders or paralysis, for example. Confusion and seizures are also possible. Some patients also show changes in their nature, triggered by the brain metastases.
The Pancoast tumor is a special form of bronchial carcinoma. It develops at the tip of the lung and can grow from there into certain structures (i.e. infiltrate them). In some patients it grows into the so-called “Ganglion stellatum”. This is a special nerve plexus that controls, among other things, the muscles in and around the eye. When it is damaged, a combination of three symptoms often occurs. Doctors refer to it as Horner’s syndrome:
- The eyelid on the affected side hangs down and can no longer be lifted completely (ptosis, ptosis).
- The pupil narrows and no longer reacts to changes in light intensity (miosis).
- The eye sinks slightly into the eye socket (enophthalmos).
The Pancoast tumor sometimes infiltrates the brachial plexus. It’s a plexus of nerves that supplies the arm, among other things. Then the sensation in the arm can be lost. Pain and paralysis of the arm are also possible symptoms.
There are also other possible symptoms. Lung cancer can also spread to other organs and tissues and cause symptoms there.
Some symptoms in lung cancer are not the result of the destructive tumor growth itself. They arise in a different way: For example, cancer cells can produce large quantities of hormone-like substances (such as ACTH). In addition, the body suffering from cancer can produce antibodies that attack its own organs and tissues. The symptoms resulting from such mechanisms are summarized under the term “paraneoplastic syndromes”.
In principle, paraneoplastic syndromes are possible in many types of cancer. However, they often occur in combination with a certain group of lung cancers – the small cell lung cancer. Symptoms may be here:
- Fat storage in the face and body trunk as well as thin skin and brittle bones (osteoporosis)
- Headaches, nausea, loss of appetite and increased irritability
- Heart rhythm disturbances, muscle weakness and paralysis. Kidney stones also form more often and the pancreas is more prone to inflammation.
- Hypoglycaemia with signs such as agitation, rapid heartbeat, sweating and ravenous appetite. In cases of pronounced hypoglycaemia, even seizures and coma are possible.
- Brain and spinal cord inflammation
- Sensory disturbances and pain in the extremities
Paraneoplastic syndromes can be very different. The type and severity of the symptoms that occur vary from patient to patient.
How can lung cancer be detected in time?
It is very difficult to detect bronchial carcinoma at an early stage. If this is actually successful, it is usually a random finding during a routine examination. By the time symptoms appear at all, the tumour has in many cases already progressed considerably.
Therefore, you should see your doctor if you have one or more of the above symptoms. Anyone who suffers from coughing for a longer period of time, for example, should definitely have this clarified medically. This is all the more true if additional risk factors such as cigarette consumption or increased age are present. Chronic, therapy-resistant cough is one of the most common lung cancer symptoms.