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Lung cancer: Risk factors, signs and symptoms

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. That's why it's important to know the signs, symptoms and risk factors.

November 15, 2023

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S.

The earlier lung cancer is identified and treated, the better the odds of survival. The challenge is in finding lung cancer in its early stage, which can be difficult because most lung cancers do not cause noticeable symptoms until the disease has spread to other parts of the body.

Being aware of risk factors that might predispose you to lung cancer, and knowing some of the common signs and symptoms of lung cancer can increase the odds of it being discovered at an earlier, and potentially more treatable, stage.

Risk factors for lung cancer

There are two types of lung cancer: small-cell and non-small cell.

  • Small-cell lung cancer is less common than non-small cell lung cancer. It occurs mostly in heavy smokers.
  • Non-small cell lung cancer is an umbrella term for several types of lung cancer that behave similarly. These cancers include squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large-cell carcinoma. 

Both non-small cell and small-cell lung cancer share several risk factors, such as:

  • A current or past history of smoking cigarettes, pipes or cigars 
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • A family history of lung cancer in a first-degree relative
  • Previous radiation therapy to the breast or chest
  • Exposure to asbestos, chromium, nickel, arsenic, soot or tar in the workplace
  • Exposure to radon in the home or workplace
  • Exposure to air pollution
  • Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

If you are concerned about your risk for lung cancer, take our free, confidential lung health risk assessment. Your results will be emailed to you, and there’s no further obligation.

Signs and symptoms of lung cancer

Lung cancer can cause symptoms that are linked to breathing, including:

  • A persistent or chronic cough that gets worse over time
  • Hoarseness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Frequent pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia
  • Having blood in your sputum when you cough

Other symptoms more commonly appear after the lung cancer has spread. These include:

  • Headaches
  • Bone or back pain or fractures
  • Swelling of the neck and face
  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • New inability to control the bladder or bowel
  • Seizure activity, specific weakness or numbness
  • Unexplained clotting problems resulting in heart attack or stroke

If you or a loved one has shown signs and symptoms of lung cancer, reach out to your doctor. Early detection is a key factor in lung cancer survival rates, and survival rates vary depending on the stage of the cancer upon diagnosis. According to the National Cancer Institute, when the disease remains localized within the lungs, the five-year relative survival is more than 60%. However, once it has metastasized, the rate drops to 8.2%.

If you have any concerns or questions related to these symptoms, please know that help is available. At HCA Virginia Health System, we provide comprehensive lung cancer care, including rehabilitation services and a variety of cancer support resources. As part of Sarah Cannon, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare, our family of hospitals not only provides comprehensive cancer services, we also offer convenient access to cutting-edge therapies for people facing cancer in our communities.

Have cancer questions? We can help. askSARAH is a dedicated helpline for your cancer-related questions. Our specially trained nurses are available 24/7, and all calls are confidential. Contact askSARAH at (804) 591-4152.

It is important to know that the information in this post, including recommendations for screening, is accurate as of the publishing date. This blog was originally published on the Sarah Cannon blog in 2022 and was updated for HCA Virginia Health System in 2023.

November 15, 2023

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