Skip to nav Skip to content

Woman with chest pain

In many cases, lung cancer signs do not become apparent or prompt an individual to seek medical attention until the tumor reaches an advanced stage. The initial signs, if any, are typically mild and often mistakenly attributed to another, less serious condition, such as the common cold or flu. Also, there are few nerve endings that provide sensation within the lungs, making it difficult to feel changes within that area of the body. For these reasons, some patients wait a few months after symptoms develop before seeing a physician for a diagnosis.

Even so, some people may notice one or more vague warning signs that something is not quite right early on. It is important to pay close attention to these signs. In general, the earlier lung cancer is detected, the more treatment options a patient is likely to have, so it is essential to begin the diagnostic process as soon as possible.

Early warning signs & early symptoms of lung cancer

The initial symptoms of lung cancer usually involve the respiratory system, which includes the nose, mouth, throat, voice box, windpipe and lungs. However, many lung cancer symptoms can also be caused by other, less serious conditions. The key to early detection is recognizing when a seemingly harmless symptom lasts longer than it should—such as a cold that lingers for more than two weeks—or occurs along with other symptoms.

Common lung cancer signs & symptoms

Some of the most common lung cancer signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • A high-pitched whistling sound when inhaling or exhaling (stridor)
  • A wet cough that produces mucus, phlegm or blood
  • Recurrent bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia

Differences between small cell & non-small cell lung cancer symptoms

While fatigue and unexpected weight loss are more common in patients with small cell lung cancer (because it spreads more rapidly), all other symptoms can occur with all types of lung cancer. The best way to know if you have non-small cell or small cell lung cancer is to be properly diagnosed by a physician.

Signs of lung cancer in women vs. men

Generally speaking, lung cancer produces the same symptoms in women as it does in men. However, men are more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma (which occurs in the lung’s airways) while  women are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma (which occurs in the lung’s outer edges). Since squamous cell carcinoma symptoms are often more apparent, men with that malignancy tend to notice their symptoms earlier than women with adenocarcinoma.

Advanced lung cancer signs & symptoms

In addition to the respiratory system, advanced-stage lung cancer can affect other parts of the body, especially if cancerous cells have entered the bloodstream or lymphatic system and spread (metastasized) to distant tissues or organs, such as the brain, liver or bones. Advanced lung cancer may cause:

  • Persistent fever
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Bone pain
  • Swelling in the face, neck or arms
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Neurological symptoms, such as memory loss
  • Pain in the chest, shoulders or back

What does lung cancer feel like?

Advanced-stage lung cancer can produce pain affecting the shoulders in addition to the uncomfortable respiratory symptoms. This may occur for a number of different reasons. For example, if a Pancoast tumor (which develops in the top portion of the lung) starts pinching a nerve, it can cause shoulder pain. Or, if lung cancer progresses to the point where it begins spreading to distant areas of the body, there’s a chance that it can damage the muscles, which can in turn cause shoulder pain.

Considering how common shoulder pain is, many people question what shoulder pain from lung cancer feels like and how they can differentiate it from pain caused by a less serious condition (for example, arthritis or tendonitis). Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Like many other types of shoulder pain, lung cancer-related shoulder pain can feel like a deep ache or radiate down the arms, producing tingling and/or numbness.

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain, consider whether there’s another possible reason for the pain (for example, a recent injury). Chances are good that there’s a less serious explanation for your symptoms. However, if you can’t think of any other reason for the pain and it doesn’t resolve on its own after a few weeks, consult with a physician to determine exactly what’s causing your symptoms.

What does lung cancer look like?

Lung cancer doesn’t typically cause any visible symptoms other than perhaps weight loss and looking tired or unwell. But in certain circumstances, lung cancer symptoms can develop on the skin. For example:

  • If a Pancoast tumor exerts pressure on the brachial plexus nerves, it can lead to Horner syndrome, the symptoms of which may include flushed skin and an inability to sweat.
  • If the tumor produces a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to make cortisol, it can lead to the development of Cushing’s syndrome, which can in turn cause easy bruising.
  • If the cancer reaches an advanced stage and spreads to the liver, pancreas or bile ducts, it can cause jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).

It’s important to note that certain lung cancer treatments can also visibly affect the skin. For instance, radiation therapy can cause a painful reddening of the skin that’s similar to a sunburn. Certain immunotherapy and targeted therapy medications can also cause skin issues such as dryness, itching, flakiness and an acne-like rash.

Common lung cancer signs & symptoms FAQs

If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer or are concerned that you may have symptoms of the disease, it’s only natural to want to learn as much as you can about it. Here are some FAQs that provide more general information about the signs and symptoms of lung cancer:

How Moffitt Cancer Center approaches lung cancer

At Moffitt Cancer Center, we offer comprehensive low-dose CT lung cancer screening and surveillance programs for at-risk individuals and those who are exhibiting symptoms of lung cancer. Through extensive research studies and clinical trials such as the NCI-Sponsored National Lung Screening Trial, scientists have found that lung cancer screening programs such as ours lead to more prompt and precise diagnoses, which have long been correlated with better outcomes and quality of life.

At Moffitt, our patients benefit from our multispecialty team of specialized oncologists, pulmonologists, radiologists, pain management specialists and supportive care specialists. We also offer a tobacco treatment program to help patients and their family members quit smoking as comfortably as possible.

To request an appointment to discuss your lung cancer signs with a specialist in the Thoracic Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, please call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online. No referral is needed.


What Are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer? | CDC

Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer

American Cancer Society: Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer