October 20, 2023
October 20, 2023

Early Lung Cancer Warning Signs Are Uncommon: Here’s Why

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Early Lung Cancer Warning Signs Are Uncommon: Here’s Why

When you're diagnosed with lung cancer at an early stage before it spreads to other areas of the body, you have a much better chance of successful treatment. Another advantage is that early detection can make it possible to fight lung cancer with less aggressive treatments, improving quality of life. Plus, there are often more treatment options than with late-stage lung cancer. The problem is that early lung cancer warning signs can be non-existent or so subtle they go unnoticed.

Here, we’ll delve into the early warning signs of lung cancer, shedding light on the subtle hints that often go undetected. We’ll provide insights into the various stages of lung cancer, emphasizing the symptoms associated with each. Given the elusive nature of early symptoms, understanding the risk factors associated with lung cancer becomes imperative. 

We'll also briefly touch on the different types of lung cancer, stressing the need for vigilance in the face of this formidable foe. You'll learn why regular screenings like low-dose chest CT scans to detect lung cancer are so important for high-risk patients.

How Common Is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in the United States and the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women.

  • It's expected that 238,340 new lung cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2023, and 127,070 people will die from the disease.
  • Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer, but exposure to secondhand smoke, radon gas, and air pollution can also increase the risk.

What Are Some Early Lung Cancer Warning Signs?

Recognizing subtle symptoms of lung cancer can be pivotal in early diagnosis and better outcomes. But remember — oftentimes people may have no symptoms when lung cancer is in the earliest stages. 

Some signs and symptoms to watch for include the following:

  • Persistent cough: A chronic cough or bronchitis, especially coughing up blood, is a common lung cancer symptom.
  • Unexplained weight loss: Sudden, unexplained weight loss, despite no changes in diet or physical activity, could indicate underlying health issues, including lung cancer.
  • Loss of appetite: This is common in patients with all cancers and undergoing cancer treatment. Changes in the sense of taste and smell may cause loss of appetite.
  • Chest pain: Persistent chest pain, especially while breathing deeply or coughing, warrants immediate medical attention.
  • Shortness of breath: If you experience persistent shortness of breath, even during routine activities, it might be a sign of lung cancer, particularly if there’s no other apparent cause.
  • Hoarseness: Scratchy throat that lingers for weeks, unrelated to respiratory infections, should raise concerns.
  • Phlegm with blood: Coughing up sputum or phlegm tinged with blood, even in small amounts, necessitates medical investigation. 
  • Blood clots: Developing blood clots in the legs, arms, or lungs is more common in lung cancer patients. 
  • Finger clubbing: This sign occurs when your fingers become more curved or longer due to a lack of oxygen.
  • Unexplained fatigue: Constant fatigue, unrelated to physical or mental exertion, might indicate an underlying health issue, potentially lung cancer.

Different Types of Lung Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, about 84% of all lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Large cell carcinoma may show up anywhere in your lung. It grows and spreads quickly, making it challenging to treat.

About 10-15% of lung cancers are small-cell lung cancers (SCLC). Smokers tend to develop this type of cancer much more frequently.

The two types of SCLC are small cell carcinoma (or oat cell cancer) and combined small cell lung cancer (a mix of large and small cells). They're named for how the cells look under a microscope. You may also hear types of cancer described as squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinomas, lymphoma, and sarcomas.

A Warning About Pancoast Tumors

Pancoast tumors, named after radiologist Dr. Henry Pancoast, are rare, affecting only 3% to 5% of lung cancer patients. These tumors develop at the apex, or top, of the lung, near the spine. Oftentimes, symptoms of Pancoast tumors — such as arm and shoulder pain, muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, drooping eyelids, and loss of coordination — are initially missed because they are subtle or easily explained by other causes.

However, it’s imperative to consult a healthcare professional if any of the aforementioned symptoms arise, especially when they persist or worsen over time. Recognizing the symptoms associated with Pancoast tumors is crucial for early detection and intervention.

What Are the Red Flags of Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer warning signs: senior people hiking together

In the early stages of lung cancer, you may not have any noticeable symptoms, making it crucial to understand risk factors and make lifestyle changes. Tumors often progress to more advanced stages before symptoms become apparent. Understanding what is happening with the tumor growth as lung cancer progresses can help you make sense of the symptoms. 

Stage I lung cancer: The tumor is localized within the lungs and has not spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes. Symptoms are often absent or mild.

Stage II lung cancer: The tumor has grown and may have started to invade nearby tissues or lymph nodes within the lung. Coughing discomfort, shortness of breath, and chest pain may be symptoms of this condition.

Stage III lung: In this stage, the cancer has spread extensively within the lung and to nearby lymph nodes. Symptoms may include worsening cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and bone pain.

Stage IV lung cancer: Advanced lung cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body. Symptoms may include fatigue, unexplained weight loss, bone pain, neurological symptoms, and breathing difficulties.

What Are Lung Cancer Risk Factors?

Because lung cancer often develops without early symptoms, understanding an acting on your risk factors is critical. Smoking significantly elevates the risk and exposure to secondhand smoke, radon gas, and air pollution also contribute. A family history of lung cancer further increases susceptibility. Understanding these risk factors can empower you to be vigilant, especially if you fall into high-risk categories. Let’s take a closer look at each of these risk factors.


According to the CDC, smoking tobacco is the leading risk factor for getting lung cancer, accounting for up to 90% of all cases. Tobacco smoke contains 7,000+ chemicals, including at least 70 known to cause cancer. When you smoke, these chemicals are inhaled into the lungs and may cause damage to the DNA of lung cells. This can lead to the development of cancer tumors.

The more cigarettes you smoke and the longer you smoke, the higher your risks are. But even smoking a few cigarettes a day or occasionally increases your risks. Ask your healthcare provider for help quitting smoking. 

Family History of Lung Cancer

If you have family members with lung cancer, you’re at an elevated risk of developing the disease. This is because you may be more likely to inherit genetic mutations that increase your risk. If you have a family history of lung cancer, talk to your doctor about ways to screen for cancer early and reduce your risks.

Radiation Therapy to the Chest

Radiation treatment to your chest can damage the DNA of lung cells and increase the risk of developing lung cancer. The risk is highest in people exposed to higher radiation doses, which is not the same as radiation from routine chest X-rays.

Carcinogen Exposure

Carcinogens are substances that can cause cancer. Some common carcinogens that can increase the risk of lung cancer include:

  • Radon: Colorless, odorless, radioactive gas found in soil and rocks
  • Asbestos: A mineral fiber once widely used in construction materials, such as insulation and roofing
  • Other carcinogens (cancer-causing substances): Workplace chemicals including asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust, and certain forms of silica and chromium

To minimize your lung cancer risk, get your home tested for radon and get informed about potential carcinogens at your workplace. 

Second-Hand Smoke Exposure

Second-hand smoke refers to smoke that comes from smoke from burning tobacco cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or even from exhaled smoke. It contains many harmful chemicals, including carcinogens. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of developing lung cancer by about 20-30%. Avoid second-hand smoke by asking smokers to step outside to light up and staying away from smoking areas.

Treating Lung Cancer: What Are Your Options? 

The options for treatment depend on the type of cancer you have, such as non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), whether you have metastases (cancer has spread), what stage your cancer is, and other factors, like your overall health, lung function, and cancer characteristics. Quite often, your oncologist will order a combination of treatments that could include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiofrequency ablation
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted drug therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Palliative care

The Importance of Lung Cancer Screening

Regular lung cancer screenings are essential for early detection and better outcomes, especially for high-risk individuals since common symptoms of lung cancer may not be present or obvious. 

To understand your lung cancer risk from smoking, multiply the number of packs per day you smoke by the number of years you have smoked. This result will be your pack year history and will help determine your next steps. You can also use Ezra's cancer risk calculator to better understand your risk 

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that adults with 20 pack-year history of smoking who currently smoke or have quit within 15 years have an annual low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) screening. 

Low-Dose Computed Tomography Scan

An LDCT screening is a safe and effective way to detect lung cancer early when it’s most treatable. The test uses low-dose radiation to create images of the lungs. These images can identify small tumors that may not be visible on other imaging tests or by physical examination.

Low-dose chest computed tomography uses X-rays to create detailed cross-sectional images of the chest area. The "low-dose" aspect refers to the reduced amount of radiation exposure compared to a standard CT scan.

LDCT scans are commonly used for lung cancer screening, especially in individuals at high risk for the disease, such as current or former smokers. The lower radiation dose makes it a safer option for regular screenings, allowing healthcare professionals to detect lung cancer in its early stages when it’s more treatable. 

These screenings are crucial for identifying small tumors or nodules in the lungs, enabling timely medical intervention and improving the chances of successful treatment outcomes.

Ezra's Focused Exam: LDCT of the Chest

For people without symptoms who still want to be proactive about their health, Ezra offers a five-minute low-dose chest CT scan. Once your results are ready, you'll receive a report and a medical provider will follow up with a 45-minute consultation (based on telehealth guidelines) with a Personal Care Advisor. 

Ezra’s LDCT scan may help detect various conditions, including cancerous masses, emphysema, lung bullae, and pulmonary cysts to give you a thorough evaluation of lung health.

Warning Signs of Lung Cancer Are Sneaky: Stay Vigilant Through Regular Screenings

Lung cancer warning signs: senior woman happily using a laptop

The good news is that while lung cancer isn't completely avoidable, proactive measures like regular checkups, screening tests, and avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke and other chemicals are effective.

Understanding the early warning signs of lung cancer, from its subtle hints to the advanced stages, can empower you to take charge of your health. Since many people don't experience obvious lung cancer warning signs early on, it’s even more vital to educate yourself about various risk factors and make healthy lifestyle changes. 

Furthermore, for those at risk, regular lung cancer screening through a yearly low-dose Chest CT is a pivotal step in the battle against this formidable disease. Assess your risk for cancer using Ezra's fast and free calculator online now and book an Ezra Full Body MRI to screen up to 13 major organs for cancer and other diseases — even if you don’t have any symptoms.