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What Are the Early Signs of Lung Cancer?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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Most of the early signs of lung cancer are easily confused with other illnesses and conditions. Symptoms such as chronic coughing, shoulder and back pain, and even weight loss can be attributed to other conditions or can go unnoticed. The earlier lung cancer is detected, the higher a person’s cancer survival rate. Since so many lung cancer symptoms are similar to symptoms of other problems, however, many people have advanced to the final lung cancer stages before being diagnosed. To increase the chance of survival, it’s important for anyone experiencing these symptoms, especially those with a history of cancer or smoking, to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

A few of the early signs can be confused with symptoms of other illnesses. For example, a chronic cough that won’t go away can be one of the early symptoms of lung cancer that people can mistake for a cold, flu, bronchitis, or pneumonia symptom. This is also true of new coughs as well as coughs accompanied by blood. Similar symptoms, such as experiencing wheezing or hoarseness, can be early signs of lung cancer, as well. Repeated instances of lung infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, can also be among the earliest signs of lung cancer.

Like coughing, wheezing, and experiencing hoarseness, pain in certain body parts can be confused with symptoms of other issues, such as injuries. These body parts include the shoulder, back, arm, and chest. Sometimes these pains become worse when the person moves, coughs, or even breathes. Some people in early lung cancer stages might also experience bone pain and headaches. Shortness of breath with activity can be an early symptom of lung cancer, and is often confused with asthma or allergies.

There are also less physically painful early signs of lung cancer. For example, losing weight without trying can be a symptom of lung cancer. This is especially true if the person is also experiencing a decrease in appetite. Unexplained swelling of the face and neck can also be one of the first signs of lung cancer. Other seemingly unrelated symptoms, such as fatigue and depression, also can be early signs of lung cancer.

The cancer survival rate increases the earlier the cancer is discovered, especially if the disease is detected while it is still stage 1 lung cancer. Unfortunately, approximately one-fourth of people who have lung cancer experience no symptoms in the early lung cancer stages. Many who do have the symptoms confuse them with symptoms of other illnesses and don’t seek treatment. Consequently, nearly half of lung cancer patients have progressed to stage 4 lung cancer by the time the cancer is diagnosed. Therefore, it’s important for a person experiencing any of these potential early signs of lung cancer to consult with a doctor, especially if he has a family history of cancer or if he was or still is a smoker.

What Is the Anatomy of the Lungs?

Air travels down the trachea, or windpipe, into the lungs when you breathe. From there, the air moves into tiny passages called bronchi. The job of bronchi is to take that air and distribute it throughout your lungs. It also serves as a humidifier. Cilia, tiny hairs that move mucus, line the bronchi. Bronchi look like tree branches, and they have even smaller components called bronchioles further down the line. At the very end of the branches are sacs called alveoli. All air that pushes through the bronchi ends in the alveoli, where the real work begins. The alveoli exchange gasses with your bloodstream, taking carbon dioxide away and supplying oxygen.

Where Does Lung Cancer Usually Start?

Lung cancer usually originates in the alveoli, bronchioles or bronchi. When a malignant cell appears in one of these locations, it can spiral out of control quickly. Since these are tight areas, they make it easy for infected cells to taint these small areas.

What Are the Different Types of Lung Cancer?

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cells resemble fish scales and line airways. Cancer found in these flat cells is prevalent among smokers.


Adenocarcinomas are found in several organs, including the lungs. While it can occur in non-smokers, adenocarcinoma diagnoses are more frequent in lifelong or former smokers. It is also more prevalent in women than in men.

Small Cell Carcinoma

Small cell carcinoma typically forms in the bronchi. It is swift-growing and can spread rapidly throughout the body.

Large Cell Carcinoma

This form of cancer does not limit itself to the airways. Oncologists may find these spots anywhere in the lungs. It typically spreads quickly through the breathing organs to other body parts, like small cell carcinoma.

Other Types of Lung Cancers

Other forms of lung cancer may show up as carcinoid tumors. Disease may also orginate elsewhere in the body and spread into the lungs. Some cancers respond better to treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, so it is important to understand what type of cancer patients have.

When Do Lung Cancer Symptoms Appear?

Lung cancer symptoms may be challenging to identify because they are relatively vague and mimic other illnesses. Some common symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Becoming easily winded
  • Raspy breathing 
  • Exhaustion
  • Unpleasant sensations when swallowing
  • Pain in the chest
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Swelling in the neck or face
  • Coughing, sometimes with blood

When symptoms appear largely depends on the type of cancer. However, most patients do not experience any symptoms in the early stages. The first symptom is usually a light cough, which many assume is a respiratory virus. More symptoms are unlikely to show up until the condition has progressed significantly.

How Do You Test Yourself for Lung Cancer?

You cannot test yourself for lung cancer, but being aware of the risk factors could make a big difference in diagnosis. Former smokers, current smokers and patients with a family history of pulmonary disease should remain vigilant. Know the signs and symptoms and be an advocate for your health. Some doctors will ignore minor symptoms unless a patient pushes for further testing.

How Do Doctors Test for Lung Cancer?

Traditional x-ray machines are not effective for detecting lung malignancies. Instead, the screening test used is a low-dose CT scan. This imaging test offers doctors a complete view of the organs in the chest. The results will show any abnormalities in the areas most commonly affected by disease. People at high risk should receive annual low-dose CT scans. Yearly tests could potentially catch conditions at early stages before symptoms begin.

What Can You Expect During a Low-Dose CT Scan?

A low-dose CT scan is a circular x-ray machine that takes three-dimensional images of your lungs. It is a fast and painless test and does not require any preparation such as dye injections. A technician will ask you to put on a hospital gown and lie flat on a table. The table will move slowly into a round X-ray tube. The technician will require you to be very still and hold your breath while the machine scans your chest. The cameras will rotate around you inside the tube and capture thoracic images. The entire process should only take about 5 minutes. Depending on your situation, your doctor may meet with you shortly after the test to review your results. Do not panic if you must wait for your results. It is normal to wait up to a week while pathologists review your scans.

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