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Early warning signs of lung cancer are uncommon: Here’s why.

Key takeaways:

  • Early warning signs of lung cancer rarely appear — lung cancer often makes itself known in the advanced stages. 
  • Tobacco use is the leading cause of lung cancer.
  • While there’s no guaranteed prevention of lung cancer,  annual screenings can lead to early detection and more successful treatment.
  • The two biggest types of lung cancer are non-small cell (NSCLC) and small cell (SCLC).
  • Treatment options depend on the type of cancer, general patient health, and cancer staging.

Early warning signs of lung cancer rarely appear, as the illness is often advanced before symptoms make their presence known. That’s why regular screenings to detect lung cancer and preventative measures like lifestyle changes are so important. 

The good news is, while lung cancer isn’t completely avoidable, preventative measures like getting regular screenings, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding tobacco, are effective. 

The early detection of lung cancer can significantly improve your treatment options if you do get sick, which would strengthen you in your fight against cancer.

Early warning signs of lung cancer.

The first signs of lung cancer are subtle and often go unnoticed. Most symptoms only appear when lung cancer is in its more advanced stages. This is why early detection is a better way to know if you have lung cancer.

The American Lung Association (ALA), says the early warning signs are easily confused with respiratory infections or conditions such as pneumonia, bronchitis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The symptoms of lung cancer can include:

  • Shortness of breath/wheezing.
  • Voice hoarseness
  • Chest pain
  • Phlegm 
  • Chronic coughing or coughing up blood or blood clots
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Bone pain or fractures
  • Shoulder pain

If any of these signs or symptoms persist for more than a week or two, you should see your doctor.

If you’re a smoker or at risk of lung cancer because of some other exposure such as radon or secondhand smoke, you should schedule a low dose CT scan (LDCT). 

Smoking causes lung cancer in most cases.

The fact is smoking causes lung cancer, whether you use cigarettes, pipes, or cigars. The amount you smoke has a direct correlation with your risk for lung cancer. 

To evaluate your risk for developing lung cancer, healthcare professionals measure the amount you smoke by pack-years. If you smoke one pack of cigarettes (20 cigarettes) every day for a year, you have smoked one pack-year. To quantify your smoking history, multiply the number of years you’ve smoked by your base pack-year.

If you smoke, you’re at a higher risk for lung cancer. However, there are other risk factors to consider as well.

Second-hand smoke, exposure to carcinogens such as radon or asbestos, and a family history of lung cancer are also prevalent causes.

Other lung cancer risk factors include:

  • A history of lung cancer: If you’ve had lung cancer before, you could develop it again.
  • Family history: Genetics may predispose some people to lung cancer.
  • Radiation therapy to the chest: If you’ve had radiation therapy for your chest, you have a higher risk for lung cancer.
  • Second-hand smoke: If you spend time around smokers, you’re inhaling second-hand smoke. That’s nearly as bad as smoking yourself.
  • Radon: Undetectable, radon is a radioactive gas that forms during natural uranium decomposition. It can seep into buildings through small breaks in the foundation. It also can contaminate wells.

There are 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 13% 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.

Other types of cancer include lymphoma, sarcomas, and Pancoast tumors. A Pancoast tumor is a type of small cell cancer. While relatively rare, these tumors are very aggressive and spread (metastasize) quickly.

Treatment options are determined by the kind of cancer you have.

early warning signs of lung cancer: smiling woman

Treatment options for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) depend on your cancer’s staging. Your medical practitioner may use a low dose CT scan to determine the stage of your cancer. 

Other factors, such as your overall health, lung function, and cancer characteristics, are also considered.

Quite often, you’ll have a combination of treatments that could include:

The treatment options for small cell lung cancer (SCLC) also primarily depend on the stage of your cancer:

  • If you have SCLC and are healthy, you’ll likely have chemotherapy.
  • Advanced SCLC patients undergo chemotherapy that may or may not include immunotherapy.
  • A very advanced stage (Stage IV) of lung cancer usually means you have metastases in other areas of your body. Your treatment may also include immunotherapy.

Side effects, whether from your physical condition or medication, will vary. Still, one physical side effect can be superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS).

Your superior vena cava is a central vein in your upper body. It carries blood from your head, neck, upper chest, and arms to the heart. SVCS occurs when your superior vena cava is partially blocked or compressed.

Lung cancer prevention is possible.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates there will be 235,760 new cases in 2021.  That sounds like a lot, but early detection and advances in medicine are leading to a declining lung cancer death rate.

In addition, the incidence of new lung cancer diagnoses is dropping as more people quit smoking, because tobacco use is the primary cause of lung cancer.

There’s no foolproof way to avoid developing lung cancer, but you can take steps to decrease your risk. Prevention methods include quitting smoking, eating a high-fiber diet, and having an annual LDCT scan. 

Regular CT scans can detect lung cancer before it grows.

Screening scans lead to early detection and more successful treatment. Note that the CDC only recommends low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) if you are at risk of having lung cancer. 

The U.S. Preventative Service Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual LDCT screenings for adults ages 55-80 with a 30 pack-year smoking history. The recommendation applies regardless of whether you still smoke or have quit within the last 15 years.

Avoiding tobacco use is a substantial first step in prevention.

When you stop smoking, your lung tissue will gradually begin repairing itself. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you smoked—quitting could help you avoid lung cancer.

Of course, it’s always better to have never smoked, but if you do smoke, quit now. The American Lung Association has some great tips on how to quit, as does the CDC. 

Further, avoid second-hand smoke by asking smokers to step outside to light up and avoiding smoking areas.

Eat a healthy diet.

According to JAMA Oncology, a high-fiber diet, plenty of yogurt, or a combination of the two may also reduce your risk of lung cancer. An analysis of more than 1.44 million people from the U.S., Europe, and Asia, showed regularly eating high dietary fiber and yogurt corresponded with a reduced risk of lung cancer.

Early detection of lung cancer can improve your treatment options.

If you’re wondering about your own risk for lung cancer, take a quick assessment quiz to get your cancer risk score. 

Preventative healthcare against lung cancer includes diet, tobacco avoidance, and early detection. Regular elective scans can help detect lung cancer before symptoms develop in its advanced stages. 

At Ezra, the full body MRI scan includes an LDCT scan of the lungs for individuals at high risk for developing lung cancer. Join Ezra today and get the preventative edge on your health.Many patients have delayed regular scans due to safety concerns. However, Ezra takes considerable safety measures, including thorough cleanings between exams, social distancing in waiting rooms, and MRI-compatible masks provided for the scan. We encourage you to not delay your screenings any further and schedule your appointment.