Could Your Nagging Cough Actually Be Lung Cancer?

It’s easy to assume that if you’ve never smoked cigarettes, then you don’t have to worry about lung cancer.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true: Anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of all people who have been diagnosed with lung cancer are actually nonsmokers, says Rex Chin-Wei Yung, M.D., an adjunct faculty member in the department of oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Even more worrying: Lung cancer is also the leading cancer killer of women (and men, for that matter) in the U.S., killing more than breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined, says Yung.

The point: Whether you smoke regularly or have never picked up a cigarette in your life, you need to be on the lookout for the following symptoms—many of them may not be related to cancer at all, but it’s always best to play it safe by discussing them with your doctor.

1. You’ve got a cough that just won’t go away.

If you’ve been hacking away for months and assuming everything’s fine, just get yourself checked out already. Your doctor will likely run tests—like chest x-rays or CT scans.

“Chest x-rays are usually the first line [of diagnosis], but they’re often not good enough,” says Taylor Ripley, M.D., associate professor of surgery and director of the mesothelioma treatment center at Baylor College of Medicine. “CT scans are more important for diagnosing lesions of the chest.”

Ripley also notes that CT scans are the best way to recognize early stages of the disease, including asymptomatic lung cancer, so trust your doc if he or she pushes for more thorough testing.

2. You keep getting bronchitis or other infections.

Recurring chest infections, like bronchitis or chronic pneumonia are a sign that a tumor or lesion could be blocking your airway, says Yung.

With a blockage, airflow is limited and mucus secretions can get stuck, causing repeated infections. If you never seem to recover from chest infections or get pneumonia over and over again, talk to your doctor.

3. You’re losing weight without trying.

Unexplained weight loss is always a red flag—especially for cancer, says Ripley. The disease takes up a lot of the nutrients that your body should be absorbing, plus it secretes hormones that induce paraneoplastic syndrome, a cancer-related condition which can lead to symptoms like weight loss.

“If you’ve lost more than 5-10 percent of your body weight and are actively trying not to lose weight, that should be investigated,” he says. “You shouldn’t be losing weight without effort.”

4. Your bones feel oddly achy.

If lung cancer has spread to other organs in your body, you may feel an ache deep down in your bones or joints, says Jack Jacoub, M.D., a medical oncologist and director of thoracic oncology at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. The back and hips are common sore spots. (Though this may also be a sign of vitamin D deficiency.)

5. You’re experiencing swelling in your neck or face.

This symptom is specific to superior vena cava syndrome, a condition where a large lung tumor is blocking the circulation of blood from the head and the shoulders back to the heart, Ripley explains.

He adds that this is also a sign of locally advanced cancer and usually associated with small cell lung cancer (i.e. a type of cancer that appears almost exclusively in people with a history of heavy smoking).

6. You feel tired all the time.

It’s totally normal to be tired a lot (you know, life), so fatigue is a tricky symptom to characterize. Plus, Ripley says, there are so many medical a conditions that can cause it (everything from cancer to metabolic disorders to psychological illness).

Still, if your activity levels are low and you don’t know why, it’s important to see a doctor—especially if you’re also experiencing other possible symptoms of lung cancer, like a cough or chronic infections.

7. Your muscles feel weak.

Lung cancer affects your muscles as well as your organs. One of the first areas to be impacted: your hips. Weakness in the shoulders, arms, and legs is also typical.

Ripley says this symptom often goes hand-in-hand with overwhelming fatigue, and it can be hard for people to really distinguish between the two. Bottom line: if you’re consistently not feeling like yourself, get to your physician.

8. You’re drinking a lot—and peeing a lot.

Certain lung cancers make hormone-like substances that upset the balance of minerals in your body, which can cause excess calcium may be released into the bloodstream, per the ACS.

Some symptoms of high calcium levels include frequent urination, excessive thirst, constipation, nausea, belly pain, and dizziness. But most of the time, Yung says that you aren’t likely to know you have high calcium levels until after you suspect something is wrong—like if you see your doc for increased fatigue—and your doctor orders lab tests.

9. You’re coughing up blood.

So this is an incredibly alarming symptom that can absolutely be a sign of lung cancer—and you should never ignore seeing any kind of blood in your spit or whatever else you cough up.

Still, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have lung cancer: “People always freak out when this happens,” says Yung, “but it can just be a sign of infection.” The most common causes are acute or chronic bronchitis, because the inflammation from repeated coughing can rupture blood vessels.

The takeaway here? Pay attention to whether this is a one-time occurrence or something persistent, and don’t wait until you’re coughing up “gobs” of blood to see your doctor, says Yung.

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