Knowing the Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
November 19, 2021
4 mins

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, a time to educate ourselves and spread the word about this fatal disease.

Approximately every two and a half minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with lung cancer, according to the American Lung Association. It is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

While cigarette smoking is linked to more than 80 percent of lung cancer deaths, this cancer doesn’t affect only smokers. There are multiple common forms of lung cancer that are found in people who’ve never smoked (for example, adenocarcinoma of the lung), and knowing how to detect signs of the disease early can be life-saving.

Signs of Lung Cancer

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider right away: 

     • A cough that worsens or persists

     • Persistent chest pain

     • Shortness of breath

     • New localized wheezing

     • Coughing up blood

     • Weight loss without a known cause

     • New and persistent voice hoarseness

     • New and persistent headache with swelling of the face, arms, or neck

     • Lung cancers growing at the top of the lung can also cause unusual symptoms such as persistent arm, shoulder, or neck pain; droopy eyelids or vision changes; and weakness in the hands

Lung nodules or spots on the lung are very common, with more than one million detected a year, thanks in part to unrelated CT scans and chest X-rays. More than 95 percent of the time, these spots are benign, or non-cancerous. However, if you do detect lung nodules, it is important to maintain a clear line of communication with your healthcare team. You may need to have follow-up imaging or schedule future checkups to make sure nothing has changed.

Preventing Lung Cancer

There are proven ways to prevent lung cancer. 

1. If you smoke (including e-cigarettes), quit. It is never too late to see huge health benefits from quitting smoking. Talk to your healthcare provider about making a plan to put smoking behind you. (In a study of heavy smokers, those who had quit smoking at least five years ago had a 39.1 percent lower lung cancer risk than those who continued to smoke. And in another study of smokers diagnosed with lung cancer, those who quit lived a median 22 months longer than those who continued smoking.)

2. Not a smoker? Avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible.

3. Have your home inspected for radon and asbestos, both of which are major contributors to lung cancer diagnoses. While the majority of lung cancer deaths are attributed to smoking, exposure to radon gas and asbestos fibers rank second and third, respectively. 

For people who have a long history of smoking or who have smoked heavily, a healthcare provider may recommend low-dose CT (computerized tomography) screening of the lungs, which can detect cancer at very early stages.  

According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), people with a significant history of smoking should consider getting a yearly low-dose CT scan. Smoking history is measured in “pack years”: a pack year is calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked. For example, one pack year is equal to smoking one pack per day for one year, or two packs per day for half a year.

People who should consider seeking out a low-dose CT screening are those who:

     • Have a 20-pack-year or higher smoking history, and

     • Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and

     • Are between 50 and 80 years old.

If you smoke cigarettes or vape using e-cigarettes, quitting is one of the best steps you can take to protect your long-term health. If you or someone you know is trying to quit, or if you have questions about your risk for lung cancer, make a virtual or in-person appointment with a Carbon Health primary care provider today, to discuss options and make a plan.

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.