Lung Cancer Symptoms

Early lung cancer symptoms can be hard to notice — or minor enough to dismiss. You may even think some are caused by other medical issues. That's why most people are diagnosed with lung cancer after a doctor sees them for another reason.

Early detection gives you the best chance for successful treatment. The lung cancer experts at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center will see any patient with worrying symptoms. In certain cases, you don't even need a diagnosis or doctor's referral to see one of our lung cancer specialists.

What Is Usually the First Sign of Lung Cancer?

Early signs of lung cancer aren't usually obvious. What you experience depends on your personal health and lifestyle. You may notice:

  • A new cough that you can’t get rid of or a change in an existing cough
  • Blood or reddish phlegm when you cough
  • Chest, back or shoulder pain
  • Chronic lung infections, such as pneumonia
  • Hoarseness when speaking
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing during normal activities
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Weakness or fatigue

What Does It Feel Like When You Have Lung Cancer?

Symptoms like persistent coughing, shortness of breath, weight loss and fatigue often become more noticeable as lung cancer progresses. What you may have once described as a small cough may become more intense.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Symptoms

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer. In addition to typical lung cancer symptoms, you may also experience:

  • Bone pain
  • Painful or difficult breathing

Non-small cell lung cancer symptoms often come on slowly. As these tumors grow and spread to other parts of the body (metastasize), you may experience symptoms in your:

  • Head (headaches or seizures)
  • Limbs (arm or leg numbness)
  • Lymph nodes (lumps you can see or feel)

Small Cell Lung Cancer Symptoms

Heavy smoking is the most common cause of small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer symptoms are usually hard to notice until the disease spreads. In addition to typical lung cancer symptoms, you may also experience:

  • Arm or leg numbness or weakness
  • Bone pain
  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Neck or collarbone lumps
  • Paraneoplastic syndrome (a rare disorder that causes neurological symptoms)

Lung Cancer Diagnosis at the Abramson Cancer Center

Our oncology-certified nurse navigators make it easier to receive the answers and care you need. Your lung cancer navigator uses specialized training and extensive experience in cancer care to:

  • Assess your needs and challenges
  • Coordinate your first and next steps
  • Help you manage issues that affect your care, including transportation and financial concerns
  • Help you prepare for appointments, treatments and potential side effects
  • Access lung cancer support groups and services

Waiting for answers about a potential cancer diagnosis is often stressful. That's why our intake system speeds up the process for you. Your nurse navigator also makes sure you see the right experts within one business day of contacting our program. We also strive to:

  1. Get you in for any needed imaging studies within a day
  2. Have all the information we need to make a diagnosis and treatment plan within three days
  3. Start your treatment, if needed, within two weeks

Learn more about lung cancer diagnosis.

Ted's Lung Cancer Journey

Ted Fitzgerald had a "cough that wouldn’t quit." A biopsy confirmed it was stage 3 lung cancer. See how a team approach and proton therapy — an incredibly precise, noninvasive radiation therapy — saved his life. Read Ted's story.