Lung Cancer

Lung cancer - signs, symptoms and delay in diagnosis

It is important to note that signs and symptoms similar to those caused by lung cancer may be due to other less serious problems. However, one factor affecting survival for patients with lung cancer is the extent to which the tumour has spread at diagnosis, which in turn depends on how the tumour is discovered, and how quickly the patient sees the doctor. 

Symptoms of lung cancer can be like those caused by other diseases, such as chronic bronchitis or heart disease, and may at first be misdiagnosed, especially if there is a history of other health problems. One man who complained of low back pain was investigated for bowel, kidney, stomach and liver problems. Only when a lump appeared between his neck and his shoulder blade was he sent for a chest X-ray, which showed lung cancer.

Some people only discovered they had lung disease during a routine medical check-up or when consulting their doctor about another matter. One man went to his GP for a prescription and his GP noticed 'clubbing' of his finger nails, a sign of lung cancer, but also of various other diseases.

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Fatigue, breathlessness and loss of weight are common with lung cancer. Chest pain or discomfort can occur; one woman had pain down her arm and numb fingers.

Loss of voice may also indicate that something is wrong. One man initially thought it was due to a chest infection, but it was a sign that lung cancer had recurred. Swelling of the face or neck may also be a sign of lung cancer.

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Some people diagnosed with lung cancer had repeated chest infections that did not respond to antibiotics. Many others complained of a persistent cough and some found blood in their sputum or were coughing up quite large amounts of blood.

Early diagnosis of mesothelioma (a type of lung cancer) is difficult. The first obvious sign of illness may be when an 'effusion' occurs. This is an accumulation of fluid which gathers in the pleural space around the lung, (or in the peritoneal space in the abdomen), which causes breathlessness. However, other symptoms may occur too. One man with mesothelioma initially complained of chest pain and a dull ache in his shoulder. Another man had backache, a 'croaky voice', weight loss and breathlessness. Several tests and biopsies may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis, and this can take a few weeks.

Sometimes people delayed seeking help because they had no symptoms, or because they did not associate symptoms such as tiredness with serious illness, or because the symptoms did not bother them. One woman delayed seeking help for eight months, even though her weight had dropped to five stone - she thought the weight loss was due to worry about a family problem.

Last reviewed May 2016.

Last updated May 2012.



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