If you smoke, your lungs may not tell you something's wrong until it's too late.
Most patients find out they have lung cancer because they go to the doctor for another reason, like an injury or unrelated illness, says George Eapen, M.D., a pulmonologist with MD Anderson's Division of Internal Medicine. The cancer is discovered in the process.
"Lung cancer symptoms are usually mild, and they are similar to the day-to-day symptoms smokers are familiar with," he says. "When the symptoms get severe, the cancer is advanced."
The earlier cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat. Eapen says if you are a smoker and have any of the following symptoms, don't assume they are just a side-effect of smoking. See your physician right away.
- A cough that lasts more than six weeks. "If your cough persists for that long, get it checked out."
- A diagnosis of asthma as an adult. If you are 30 years old or older, a new diagnosis of asthma is not likely to be accurate. "You may come into a doctor with wheezing and that's the conclusion they come to, and they treat that symptom. But you should pursue a second opinion."
- A cough that produces blood. It's not unusual, if you have an acute respiratory infection, to cough up some blood. "But if you aren't showing other symptoms of an illness, that is definitely not a good thing."
- Unexplained weight loss. Cancerous tumors release chemicals that reduce your appetite. Also, cancer cells metabolize calories at an increasing rate as they grow. Both of these factors result in weight loss.
Other symptoms of lung cancer include: persistent chest, arm or shoulder pain; shortness of breath; wheezing or hoarseness; frequent bouts of pneumonia or bronchitis; swelling of the neck and face; weakness or fatigue; and clubbing of fingers.
Get screened for lung cancer
If you smoke, you don't have to wait for symptoms – even mild ones – to appear before you get screened for lung cancer.
Smokers and former smokers who quit in the past 15 years, are between the ages of 55 and 80 and have a 30 pack-year smoking history should get a screening low dose screening lung CT scan to detect lung cancer.
Eapen finds patients are often reluctant to get screened, because they think if they do have cancer, the effects of treatment will be worse than the disease, with little hope of success. That's simply not true.
"Even if the lung cancer is detected late and cure becomes unlikely, treatment can prolong life and more importantly can alleviate the symptoms," he says. "And the earlier you detect any cancer, the more likely that you will have a cure."
Stop lung cancer before it starts
It takes about 20-30 years for lung cancer to develop. But every cigarette you smoke, starting with the first one, raises your risk.
"Preventing lung cancer is a thousand times better than either detecting or treating lung cancer," Eapen says. "If everybody would stop smoking, we would cut lung cancer by 90%."