Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of deaths among males and females in the U.S. according to the American Cancer Society. Cancer do not often cause symptoms in its early stages. The symptoms appears to become obvious as the cancer spreads. Early diagnosis and treatment can considerably improve a person’s chances of survival.
Early signs and symptoms
Non-small cell lung cancer, or NSCLC, is the most common type of lung cancer.
Symptoms tend to be similar in males and females and can include:
- coughing up blood
- cough that lasts longer than a few weeks
- chest pain
- pain when breathing or coughing
- frequent lung infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia due to cancer blocking airways.
- shortness of breath
- atelectasis, which is the collapse of the lungs after cancer has blocked the airways
If a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma develops in the lungs, a person may also experience paraneoplastic syndrome (when cancerous cells produce substances that change surrounding tissue). It can cause symptoms, such as:
- muscle weakness
- involuntary movements
- difficulty walking and maintaining balance
- muscle cramps
- slurred speech
- loss of muscle coordination
- trouble swallowing
Another type of lung cancer, called small cell lung cancer or SCLC, was once more common in males than females. However, the gap is closing because the rate of lung cancer in men has dropped over the past 10 years.
SCLC typically develops near the central airways of the lungs, and it often spreads to the brain. Early symptoms may include:
- changes in vision
- changes in behavioral pattern
- weakness on one side of the body
When to see a doctor
Most male and female with lung cancer normally experience little or no symptoms when the disease is in an initial stage. By the time it has advanced enough to cause symptoms, it may have spread to other parts of the body.
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When people do have symptoms, they often mistake them for the effects of smoking or symptoms of a less serious condition, such as an infection.
Early detection and treatment can improve a person’s chances of survival. If a person experiences any of the following, they should see a doctor:
- persistent cough
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- blood in sputum
- blood that comes up with a cough
- bone pain
- weight loss that is not easy to explain
Doctors are now able to diagnose and successfully treat lung cancers at early stages in both males and females. For symptoms of lung cancer, a doctor may start by asking about a person’s general health. A physical examination and a spirometry test may may be performed. A spirometry test involves the doctor asking the person to breathe into a small device called a spirometer, this can help diagnose lung problems.
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A blood test may be required to rule out other conditions that may be causing the symptoms, such as lung infections. To ensure correct diagnosis and to rule out other conditions, a doctor may also recommend one or more of the following tests:
- Imaging tests. These allow doctors to look inside the body for signs of lung cancer and other diseases. Imaging tests may include a CT scan or a chest X-ray.
- Biopsy. The doctor collects a small sample of cells from a person’s lungs to examine in the lab. To collect the cells, the doctor inserts a thin tube through the person’s mouth or nose.
- Sputum cytology. During this exam, people are asked to cough up a small amount of sputum, which the doctor then analyses under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
Tips for coping with symptoms
The following tips may also help with shortness of breath:
- reduce exposure to second-hand smoke
- avoid activities that can encourage shortness of breath
- breath slowly, by gently inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth
- try to remain calm and relaxed
- direct cool air toward the face by turning on a fan or opening a window
- find a comfortable position and leaning forward
- eating smaller meals more frequently, and avoiding large mouthfuls of food
A doctor can also provide medications and oxygen to help relieve symptoms of breathlessness.