What Are Common Symptoms of Lung Cancer?

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Lung cancer is usually diagnosed in later stages of the disease, and an estimated 90% of patients with lung cancer are symptomatic at presentation (when they go to the doctor for diagnosis).1Symptoms of lung cancer generally increase in severity as the disease spreads, or metastasizes. Some people experience symptoms even with early stage disease. The most common symptoms of lung cancer include:

Symptoms of Lung Cancer that Has Spread

Additional symptoms that might be experienced if lung cancer spreads to nearby tissues or distant parts of the body include:

  • Swelling in the face or neck
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain in the bones, such as in the back or hips
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes, caused by jaundice from cancer spreading to the liver
  • Lumps in the lymph nodes, such as those in the neck or above the collarbone
  • Headache or dizziness
  • Seizures
  • Weakness or numbness of an arm or leg2

Managing Symptoms of Advanced Lung Cancer

Patients with advanced lung cancer experience the most troubling symptoms as well as dealing with potential side effects from treatment. Symptom management is one of the critical parts of care for patients with advanced disease. The most common symptoms of patients with late stage lung cancer are difficulty breathing (dyspnea), cough, fatigue, loss of appetite (anorexia), weakness due to ill health and malnutrition associated weight loss (cachexia), and pain. Palliative care focuses on providing relief from symptoms as well as the stress of dealing with a serious illness. The goal of palliative care is not to cure the disease but rather to improve the quality of life for the patient. While palliative care should be given throughout a patient’s care treatment, it becomes more important in the later stages of the disease.3-5

Palliative Therapies for Lung Cancer Patients

Palliative care is often provided by a number of healthcare professionals, often working as part of a multidisciplinary team. The team may include doctors, nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, psychologists, and social workers.5 The therapeutic approaches for palliative care are based on the symptoms experienced:

  • For fatigue, physical therapy and light exercise can help reduce the severity of fatigue, improve emotional well-being, and increase overall quality of life.4
  • For anorexia and cachexia, early assessment of nutritional imbalances and appropriate supplementation for needed nutrients may help a patient’s functional status and quality of life.6
  • Pain is the most common symptom for patients with late stage lung cancer and often requires a multidisciplinary approach for successful pain management, including the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), weak opioid analgesics (pain medication), and strong opioid analgesics.4
  • To support a patient’s respiratory symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and cough, several approaches are used including medication, oxygen therapy, breathing exercises, and smoking cessation (stopping smoking).4
view references
  1. Beckles MA, Spiro SG, Colice GL, Rudd RM. Initial evaluation of the patient with lung cancer. Chest 2003;123:97S-104S.
  2. American Cancer Society. Accessed online on 8/23/16 at http://www.cancer.org/.
  3. Temel JS, Pirl WF, Lynch TJ. Comprehensive symptom management in patients with advanced-stage non-small-cell lung cancer. Clin Lung Cancer. 2006 Jan;7(4):241-9.
  4. Chandrasekar D, Tribett E, Ramchandran K. Integrated palliative care and oncologic care in non-small-cell lung cancer. Curr Treat Options Oncol. 2016 May;17(5):23.
  5. National Cancer Institute. Accessed online on 8/23/16 at http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/care-choices/palliative-care-fact-sheet.
  6. Granda-Cameron C, DeMille D, Lynch MP, Huntzinger C, Alcorn T, Levicoff J, Roop C, Mintzer D. An interdisciplinary approach to manage cancer cachexia. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2010 Feb;14(1):72-80. doi: 10.1188/10.CJON.72-80
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View Written By | Review Date
Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: January 2017.
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