23rd January 2018

5 lung cancer symptoms you might not recognise

View all Early detection

Many people know a cough that lasts for more than 3 weeks, breathlessness and/or fatigue could be a sign of lung cancer. But here are five lung cancer symptoms that you might not recognise.

Clubbing of the fingers

Finger clubbing is where the appearance of your fingers change and become more curved or the ends get larger.

Clubbing of the fingers isn’t what many would consider an obvious sign of lung cancer and yet lung cancer is the most common reason for fingers to club.

Clubbing often occurs in heart and lung diseases that reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood.

For Brian Gemmell, who was diagnosed with lung cancer nearly four years ago, clubbed fingers was his only symptom:

Patient Advocate Brian Gemmell lung cancer symptoms
Brian had clubbed fingers

“I didn’t have what are considered your ‘common’ lung cancer symptoms. My initial symptom was clubbing of the fingers; the tips of my fingers were swelling up all the time. I googled it – as you do – and a respiratory problem flagged up. I went to my GP and he sent me for a chest x-ray that same day.

“I started to get concerned when I overheard the x-ray technician call for a radiographer. I was sent for CT scan and they found an advanced tumour in my right lung. The consultant was talking about a definitive biopsy but the surgeon just said no, the right lung was coming out and so it did, all of it.

Brian now spends much of his time raising awareness of lung cancer symptoms

“I am very fortunate that my GP was aware that finger clubbing was a symptom. GPs nine times out of 10 are the first port of call for somebody so it essential that they understand all the signs and symptoms in order to be able to refer you on to the next stage.

“I had an absolutely phenomenal GP; the first thing he did was send me for a chest x ray. There was no going anywhere else, no delay, and at the same time he referred me to a respiratory consultant. This knowledge and decisiveness ultimately saved my life. I know so many others are not as lucky.”

Swollen face

Many people will think a swollen face is the sign of an allergic reaction. However, swelling of the face can be caused by a superior vena cava obstruction, which is usually by lung cancer.

The superior vena cava is a large vein in the chest. It carries blood from the upper half of the body into the heart. A superior vena cava obstruction occurs when somethings stops the blood flowing. This is usually caused by lung cancer close to the vein. It may be pressing on the vein or it may have spread to the lymph nodes nearby. This blockages then causes the face to swell.

Backache / Shoulder pain

Backache is one of those things that we often explain away – ‘I pulled it when I was carrying that heavy shopping bag’, ‘I was training too hard’ or ‘it’s just a sign of getting older’. However, it can be a sign of lung cancer.

This surprises a lot of people as they tend to associate lungs with the chest rather than the back or shoulders. It certainly shocked Pat Tollady:

lung cancer symptoms
Pat (centre, in white) completed the Wirral Walk after having a lobectomy

“I’d been feeling extremely tired. My doctor kept sending me for blood tests but they kept coming back normal. Then I started complaining of shoulder pain. At a loss of what to do, the doctor sent me for an x-ray.

“I presumed I was having my shoulder x-rayed but the doctor had actually ordered a chest x-ray. I was about to walk out – my chest felt fine – but the nurse persuaded me to stay. Thank God she did; the results revealed a shadow on my left lung. I was diagnosed with stage 1A non-small cell lung cancer in my upper left lobe. I couldn’t have been more shocked.

“Fortunately, because of my age and health, I could have surgery to remove the affected lobe. I had a lobectomy just two weeks later. Luckily, it hadn’t affected my lymph nodes and I didn’t need any further treatment. I’m now cancer free.”

Loss of appetite / weight loss

Usually losing weight is considered a good thing – particularly after an indulgent Christmas. However unexplained weight loss of 10lbs or more can be cause for concern and may be the first sign of cancer. This happens most commonly with pancreas, stomach, esophagus and lung cancer.

People with lung cancer may have difficulty in chewing or swallowing. This can cause their food intake, and therefore their weight, to drop. They may also experience nausea or a lack of appetite. Cancer cells also use a disproportionate amount of the body’s energy supply and often release substances that alter the way the body processes food energy. These changes, too, can result in weight loss.

Repeated chest infections

Winter and chest infections seem to go hand-in-hand. However, if you are suffering from repeated chest infections, it may be something more serious than a winter bug; it could be a sign of lung cancer and just, in the Global Lung Cancer Coalition (GLCC) survey, one 1% of people named it as a lung cancer symptom. It was Pat Crawford’s only symptom:

“I had been suffering with a really bad chest infection. It just wouldn’t shift and so my doctors decided to send me for a scan – just to be on the safe side.

“They found a tiny ‘insignificant’ nodule on my right lung and it was recommended that I have a follow up scan in six months. The results from that scan showed the nodule had grown. It was cancerous but it had been caught early and I could have surgery. A few weeks later, in I went and out it came and, fortunately, I didn’t require any further treatment.”

lung cancer symptoms patient
Pat’s primary symptom was a persistent chest infection

Since her surgery, Pat has abseiled down the Liverpool cathedral to raise money for Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation

Know the symptoms of lung cancer

In Brian, Pat and Pat’s cases, their lung cancer symptoms led to a fast diagnosis and, ultimately, curative treatment.

We know, however, that these three people are in the minority and all too often, we hear of people who have presented with symptoms and have been misdiagnosed or diagnosed too late. It is therefore really important that everyone is aware of all the possible signs and symptoms of lung cancer because the sooner lung cancer is caught, the more chance people have of surviving.

Lung cancer signs and symptoms

lung cancer symptoms person

It is also really important that people are aware of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines. These guidelines instruct GPs to offer an urgent chest X-ray (to be performed within two weeks) to assess for lung cancer in people who aged 40 and over if they have:

Two or more of the following symptoms – cough, shortness of breath and/or fatigue, or One or more of the following symptoms – cough, shortness of breath and/or fatigue – and have a history of smoking.

If you have any concerns, or if you have any of the aforementioned symptoms, you should go to your GPs as soon as possible.