Five Early Signs of Lung Cancer You Should Never Ignore

Research shows that many patients were nonsmokers all their lives, making these critical symptoms even more noteworthy

by Manny Alvarez, MD | Updated 01 Nov 2017 at 11:04 AM

You might dismiss lung cancer because you don’t smoke or because you live in a less polluted area.

However, it’s important you understand the early signs of this illness in the event that you or someone you love develops this dangerous disease.

According to the American Cancer Society, as many as 20 percent of people with lung cancer were diagnosed as nonsmokers. While these patients may have eliminated an important risk — secondhand smoke, environmental factors or gene mutations may have triggered their onset.

In addition, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death as well as one of the most common types of cancers overall. Of new cancers diagnosed each year in the U.S., about 14 percent are lung cancer cases.

Important signs of lung cancer. With numbers like the ones above, you shouldn't wait around with lung cancer. If you notice any of these five common signs of lung cancer, consult your doctor immediately.

1.) Persistent cough. A common cold or other respiratory illness will cause a cough, but only for about a week or two. If your cough keeps going for a month or more, you should get it checked out. Also, let your doctor know if you're getting sick repeatedly, and each illness goes straight to your chest.

2.) Abnormal breathing or wheezing. Patients with lung cancer usually notice a change in breathing. Having shortness of breath or difficulty breathing after activities you normally find easy suggests a problem.

Similarly, don't dismiss wheezing as a symptom of allergies unless your doctor has confirmed it. Wheezing happens when your lungs are constricted or blocked. Check into it, especially if you haven't had a recent cold or known allergies.

3.) Hoarse voice. Lung cancer may start pressing on the nerve that controls the larynx. When that happens, you will notice a change in your voice, such as a deepening or hoarseness. You should take note if the change lasts for more than two weeks and let your doctor know about this symptom.

4.) Unexplained weight loss. Have you lost weight without trying recently? Although effortless weight loss might excite you, it could mean a deeper problem and needs your doctor's evaluation. Coupled with any of the other symptoms here, the weight loss may directly signify lung cancer.

5.) Back pain. Finally, a lesser known sign of lung cancer is a deep ache in your bones or joints. Many feel this ache in the back or hips, and the pain may worsen overnight with sleeping.

Diagnosis: what to expect. The best way for your doctor to screen you for lung cancer is through a low-dose CT scan. A simple X-ray may not catch the disease in its early stages. During the CT scan, an X-ray will scan your body while low doses of radiation will create detailed pictures of your lungs for your doctor.

If the results of the scan appear abnormal, your doctor may order a tissue sample (biopsy) to confirm the diagnosis. He may also recommend a sputum test to see if there are cancer cells there.

Then, the next step after diagnosis is determining the extent of the lung cancer. At this point, your doctor may recommend further CT scans, PET scans, bone scans, or an MRI to get an accurate analysis. The type of test will depend on your specific situation.

Treatment options. Again, your treatment will depend largely on the type and stage of lung cancer as well as your own preferences. For non-small cell lung cancer, your doctor can recommend a variety or combination of treatments:

  • Surgery. Doctors will work to remove the cancer and may need to remove tissue or part of the lung in further stages. Specialists often work together in these cases. Expect shortness of breath after any lung surgery.
  • Targeted therapy. You may be able to take these drugs alongside chemotherapy. The drugs target abnormalities in cancer cells, and your doctor may need further testing to ensure that the therapy will help.
  • Radiation. This method uses high doses of radiation from X-rays or another source to kill cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy. Here, your doctor will give you oral or IV drugs that will kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is often used in combination with any of the above treatments.

For small cell lung cancer, you will probably receive radiation and chemotherapy as your main treatment. In either case, you may also choose to participate in clinical trials.

Because of outside factors, lung cancer does happen to both smokers and nonsmokers. Although smoking or age may increase your risk, you should stay aware of any early signs of this disease. As with any cancer, treatment proves much easier and faster in the early stages.

This Fox News piece is used by permission.

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