So, how do you know when it’s time to call a doctor?
“Some lung cancer symptoms warrant immediate attention,” says thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon Ara Vaporciyan, M.D. “Others just need to be looked at within two or three weeks. A constant symptom is more of a problem than one that happens only for a short time and then resolves on its own. And combinations of symptoms are more concerning than one is by itself.”
Here are the lung cancer symptoms that three of our patients noticed, in their own words.
Chest pain or pressure in the chest
“I started feeling some weird chest pains in the summer of 2013,” says Deborah Schroeder, who was 55 when she received a lung cancer diagnosis. “When you’re young, you feel invincible. And later, you think it’s never going to happen to you. But I knew something was wrong because up until then, I’d been pretty healthy.”
A nagging cough
Nancy White, a retired school teacher from Pensacola, Florida, was 71 when she was diagnosed in 2015.
“I developed a cough that wouldn’t go away. It seemed to get worse at night,” she recalls. “I tried to relieve it by taking antibiotics. I also underwent several allergy tests and saw an ear, nose and throat specialist. None of that helped.”
Shortness of breath
Ashley Stringer was only 34 when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017.
“I began experiencing shortness of breath while exercising on a treadmill,” says the mom of two young children. “I’d noticed commercials about COPD on TV, but thought I was too young to have a chronic condition like that. Still, I had a gut feeling that I needed to have it checked out.”
See a doctor immediately if you have any of these lung cancer symptoms
Some “red flag” symptoms of lung cancer warrant immediate attention.
“Sudden or worsening shortness of breath needs to be looked into pretty quickly,” says Vaporciyan. “It can be caused by many things other than cancer, including heart problems. The same goes for chest pain. You don’t want to wait on that.”
Other possible symptoms of lung cancer that demand prompt attention include:
Coughing up blood or rust-colored phlegm
A change in your cough that is unrelated to signs of infection (fever, chills, malaise, etc.)
Chest pain that’s constant or made worse by laughing, coughing or exercising
Weight loss (late-stage symptom)
Neck or face swelling (very late-stage symptom)
“Many smokers have a chronic cough,” Vaporciyan explains, “but if you develop a new cough or a worse cough that doesn’t improve with antibiotics in a couple of weeks, I would request some sort of imaging. That goes for non-smokers, too, because lung cancer is being diagnosed more and more frequently among people who have never smoked or used tobacco products. And any time you cough up blood, that needs to be looked into promptly.”
Lung cancer usually doesn’t generate a lot of blood, Vaporciyan notes. “So, you might not need to push your way to the front of the line. But you also don’t want to leave it for months on end,” he says. “I’d get it looked at within two to three weeks — especially if you have a history of smoking.”