How to Spot Lung Cancer in Smokers and Non-Smokers

As the leading cause of cancer deaths, it is important for every person to known the signs and symptoms of lung cancer. Like with any cancer, early intervention in lung cancer can drastically reduce the chances of death. However, all cancers are largely asymptomatic (without symptoms) or present with mild non-specific symptoms in the early stages. It is therefore important for every person to be aware of the symptoms and constantly bear it in mind should these symptoms arise. While these are some diagnostic investigations that can identify lung cancer, it is not completely foolproof. Depending on the size, nature and location of the malignancy, these tests may miss lung cancer in the early stages.

Being A Tobacco Smoker

Cigarette smoking is such a major risk factor that smokers should ideally be screened on a regular basis. However, there is no routine screening protocol in place for cigarette smokers. It is largely at the discretion of the smoker themselves to ask their doctor to run tests for the possibility of cigarette smoking. Not only are cigarettes laden with cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) but it also disturbs the immune system’s functions that could target and destroy cancer cells. Ideally you should quit smoking immediately but if not, then remember that you may already have lung cancer or could develop it at anytime. Bear this in mind at all times and act immediately at the earliest signs.

Irritating Persistent Cough

It is not unusual for all of us to cough at times. Any irritant in the air that is able to reach the lower airways will elicit the cough reflex. This is normal and a protective mechanism to expel foreign agents from the airways before it causes any damage. A cough is also common with respiratory tract infections. However, the cough subsides once the irritant is removed from the respiratory tract or the infection resolves. In lung cancer there is a persistent cough that continues for weeks, months and years which is often referred to as a smoker’s cough. It is an irritating cough that does not go away easily and becomes chronic.

Cough with Bloody Sputum

Coughs can be productive (“wet”) or non-productive (“dry”). A productive cough simply means that mucus can be heard in the chest and coughed up (sputum). With a non-productive cough, it is usually dry where no phlegm is audible in the chest and no sputum is expectorated. What may start up as a dry chronic cough in smokers can turn into a wet cough. Mucus may come up with coughing, which is not uncommon with other causes of coughing. The difference here is that it is persistent. More worrying though is if there is traces of blood in the sputum. It can be blood-stained mucus or sometimes just coughing up of whole blood on its own. It is one of the major warnings signs of lung cancer.

Abnormal Breathlessness Even At Rest

We all get short of breath when we exert ourselves. This is normal as the body’s demand for oxygen increases in accordance with the level of physical activity. Eventually it reaches a point where the oxygen supply cannot match the oxygen demand by the body and we feel “out of breath” and start breathing deeper and more rapidly. However, this should not happen at rest unless we stop breathing entirely for a period of time. In lung cancer there is unexplained breathlessness that occurs with otherwise mild physical activity. You may find that you get tired more easily than you did in the past. However, as time passes you will find that you are short of breath even when you are sitting still or lying down.

Chest Pain When Breathing Deeply

Chest pain can be due to a host of different causes. It can be present with lung cancer as well but it is difficult to isolate the problem solely by the pain itself. One of the more definitive features in lung cancer is chest pain when breathing in deeply. On its own, chest pain when breathing deeply may be seen with a number of other diseases including pleuritis, pericarditis and pneumonia. However, when considered in the backdrop of tobacco smoking and coupled with other symptoms like a bloody cough, history of a persistent cough, weight loss and shortness of breath then there should be concern about lung cancer.

Wheezing Without A History Of Asthma

Wheezing is an abnormal breathing sound that is often described as a whistling or musical sound which is more prominent on breathing out than in. The bottom line is that there should be no other sound apart from what we all known as the normal inspiration and expiration sounds. Wheezing is another possible sign of lung cancer. It is more concerning in a person without a history of asthma or currently active asthma. Wheezing may occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a consequence of long term cigarette smoking and other lung diseases even among non-smokers. But wheezing that starts up without any obvious cause and persists in smokers could be lung cancer.

Non-Respiratory Symptoms of Lung Cancer

While symptoms relating to respiration and the chest are more obvious as being due to lung cancer, there are other generalized or non-specific symptoms that can also occur. It is not only seen in lung cancer but also in other cancers. In fact these symptoms are common in many chronic conditions apart from cancer. Therefore on its own it cannot be considered as a reliable indicator of lung cancer.  The two main non-respiratory symptoms of lung cancer is fatigue and unexplained weight loss.


We all feel tired at times. It is more common after a bout of strenuous physical or mental activity, with insufficient sleep and other everyday occurrences that may arise in life. Tiredness in these instances is understandable and not a cause for concern. However, fatigue is extreme tiredness that does not correlate with changes in activity. It is a common finding in all cancers. In lung cancer it is further exacerbated by disturbances in oxygenation of the blood and may therefore be more prominent.

Unexplained Weight Loss

Gain a few pounds and lose a few next month may not seem unusual to most of us. It can happen with changes in eating habits, activity levels and stress. However, in cancer there is unexplained weight loss that is consistent. Over a period of a few months it can lead to a significant loss of body mass. While it would be related to a loss of appetite that is commonly seen in cancers, this does not entirely explain why the weight loss occurs.


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