Signs of Lung Cancer: Discover the Early Signs of Lung Cancer

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It is estimated that more than 14,700 Australians were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2023 (Source). It is the leading cause of cancer death in Australia, and the fifth most common cancer diagnosed (excluding melanoma cancers). It is also responsible for almost one in five of Australia’s cancer deaths.

Lung cancer is a serious condition. If you are at risk for lung cancer, it is important to consult a health professional. The earlier you are diagnosed, the more likely your treatment will be effective. This article will outline the early signs of lung cancer, so you know what to look out for.

What are the signs of lung cancer?

In its early stages, lung cancer causes the following symptoms:

  • Persistent or worsening cough
  • Expectorating blood or sputum with a rust-like hue
  • Chest discomfort exacerbated by deep breaths, coughing, or laughter
  • Hoarseness
  • Decline in appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Breathlessness
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Prolonged or recurrent bronchitis and pneumonia
  • Onset of wheezing

However, if lung cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it can result in the following symptoms:

  • Bone pain, often felt in the back or hips
  • Alterations in the nervous system, which can manifest as headaches, arm or leg weakness or numbness, dizziness, balance issues, or seizures due to cancer dissemination to the brain
  • Jaundice, characterised by yellowing of the skin and eyes, as a result of cancer metastasis to the liver
  • Swelling of lymph nodes, including those in the neck or above the collarbone

What syndromes can lung cancer cause?

Lung cancer can give rise to specific symptom clusters known as syndromes. By familiarising yourself with these various syndromes, you empower yourself to take proactive measures towards early detection and intervention.

Horner syndrome

Tumours located in the upper region of the lungs are occasionally referred to as Pancoast tumours. They have the potential to impact specific nerves related to the eye and a portion of the face, resulting in a set of symptoms known as Horner syndrome, which may include:

  • Sagging or weakness in the upper eyelid on one side.
  • A smaller pupil (the central dark area of the eye) in the same eye.
  • Limited or absent sweating on the corresponding side of the face.
  • Intense shoulder pain

Superior vena cava syndrome

The superior vena cava (SVC) is a large vein responsible for transporting blood from the head and arms to the heart. It is next to the upper portion of the right lung and the lymph nodes situated within the chest.

When tumours develop in this area it can put pressure on the SVC, resulting in a disruption of blood flow within the veins. This disruption can result in:

  • Swelling in the face, neck, arms, and upper chest,
  • A bluish-red skin discoloration
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Shifts in consciousness

While SVC syndrome may progress gradually, in certain instances, it can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.

Paraneoplastic syndromes

Certain lung cancers produce hormone-like substances that enter the bloodstream, leading to issues in distant tissues and organs, even when the cancer itself has not metastasised to these areas. These complications are referred to as paraneoplastic syndromes. Occasionally, these syndromes can manifest as the initial signs of lung cancer.

Some common paraneoplastic syndromes include:

  • SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone): In this condition, cancer cells produce a hormone called ADH, which makes the kidneys hold onto more water. This lowers the amount of salt in the blood. Symptoms of SIADH can include: 
  • Feeling tired
  • Not wanting to eat
  • Weak muscles or cramps
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Throwing up
  • Feeling restless
  • Getting confused
  • If left untreated, severe cases can lead to seizures and a coma
  • Cushing syndrome: In this condition, the cancer cells make ACTH, a hormone that causes the adrenal glands to make cortisol. This can lead to symptoms such as:
  • Weight gain
  • Easy bruising
  • Weakness
  • Drowsiness
  • Fluid retention
  • If left untreated, it can also cause high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, or even diabetes
  • Hypercalcemia: This is the result of high levels of calcium in the blood, and can cause the following symptoms:
    • Frequent urination
    • Thirst
    • Constipation
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Belly Pain
    • Weakness
    • Fatigue
    • Dizziness
    • Confusion

Diagnostic tests and screenings for detecting lung cancer early

Diagnosing lung cancer typically involves multiple steps, such as:

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: Your doctor will start by taking a detailed medical history, including your smoking history and any exposure to risk factors like asbestos. They will also conduct a physical examination to check for signs of lung cancer, such as abnormal lung sounds or swollen lymph nodes.
  • Imaging Tests: Various imaging tests may be used, including chest X-rays, CT scans, and PET scans. These help in visualising any abnormal growths or tumours in the lungs and determining their size and location.
  • Sputum Cytology: If you have a persistent cough and are producing sputum, a sample of the mucus may be examined under a microscope to check for cancer cells.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy is the definitive way to diagnose lung cancer. It involves taking a small tissue sample from the lung or a nearby lymph node. There are different biopsy methods, including bronchoscopy, needle biopsy, or surgical biopsy, depending on the location and size of the suspected tumour.
  • Blood Tests: Blood tests can help assess your overall health and check for specific markers associated with lung cancer.
  • Genetic Testing: For certain types of lung cancer, genetic testing may be performed to identify specific mutations that can guide treatment decisions.

Risk factors for developing lung cancer

Several risk factors for lung cancer include:

Lifestyle factors

  • Tobacco smoking

Environmental or occupational factors

  • Second-hand smoke (passive smoking)
  • Occupational exposures, such as exposure to radon, asbestos, diesel exhaust and silica
  • Air pollution

Personal factors

  • Increasing age
  • Family history of lung cancer
  • History of chronic lung disease, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pulmonary fibrosis
  • Personal history of cancer, including lung cancer, and head and neck cancer
  • History of radiation therapy to the chest for other cancers
  • Infection with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
  • Certain gene mutations

Where can I go for effective lung cancer diagnosis?

At Manse Medical, we offer high-quality diagnosis and care for respiratory disorders, including lung cancer. Book your appointment online, select your preferred clinic, and choose from our list of specialised experts to get the medical care you need.