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Eight surprising lung cancer symptoms

05 January 2022

Shoulder pain, huskiness and breathlessness can all be unexpected, little-known signs of lung cancer. View our list of symptoms that need checking.

Shoulder pain
A tumour growing in the top part of the lung can damage nerves, causing shoulder pain

A diagnosis of lung cancer is one of the most devastating anyone can receive. Some 44,500 people in the UK are given the bad news each year, and around 35,000 lose their lives, making it the most common cause of cancer death, both in the UK and globally. However, it’s not all bad news. Thanks to improvements in diagnosis, surgical techniques and new treatments mortality rates have improved over the last 10 years and are projected to carry on falling.

A key reason lung cancer has lagged behind in the cancer survival stakes is that it eludes early diagnosis. Most sufferers don’t know they have it until it’s incurable. That’s partly because, while later symptoms such as coughing up blood and chest pain are unmistakably serious, earlier ones can be vague.

It’s easy to ignore, for instance, a persistent niggling cough, hoarseness or fatigue – they could, after all, easily be caused by a minor infection or just getting older.

The positive news is diagnosis is getting faster. Advances in symptom checking software has helped GPs assess the likelihood a patient has the disease based on physical signs and other factors such as age, and family and medical history. NICE guidelines also changed to allow GPs to fast-track those suspected of symptoms bypassing the traditional, usually slower specialist referral route.

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.

1. A change of mood

Depression and anxiety are a frequent forerunner of cancer, according to a population study carried out in Denmark which followed over 4 million people for a period of 10 years.

The study found that during the first month after contacting a mental health professional the incidence of all kinds of cancer was higher, especially small cell lung cancer. It’s unknown why this might be the case, although it could be due to hormonal changes or the impact cancer is having on your immune system. If you don’t usually suffer the moody blues, see the GP to help get to the bottom of what might be causing it.

10 surprising ways to feel less anxious

2. Tiredness and fatigue

Debilitating tiredness and fatigue affect nine out of ten people before and after a lung cancer diagnosis. So says a 2011 report in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

Sufferers also complain of simply not feeling themselves without being able to pin down why. This feeling of tiredness can be down to anemia, which is common with lung cancer.

Why am I tired all the time?

3. Digital clubbing

Not a new way to visit a nightclub, but sometimes painful thickening and reddening of the ends of the fingers and nails can be a sign of lung cancer.

Sometimes mistaken for arthritis, lung cancer, especially the non small-cell type, is the commonest lung-related cause of finger clubbing, caused by a chemical caused by the lung tumour that pushes more blood and fluid to the fingertips.

Why are my fingers swollen?

4. Getting out of breath easily

Breathlessness – or dyspnoea - is common in later-stage lung cancer. It may be mistaken for lack of fitness, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If you find yourself easily becoming breathless seemingly out of the blue it would be worth consulting your doctor.

Need to talk to a GP from the comfort of your own home? Saga Health Insurance customers can talk to a qualified, practising UK GP 24 hours a day by phone. Find out more about our GP service.

5. A husky voice

If you find yourself sounding permanently like Kathleen Turner, especially if you also have a persistent cough, this could be a sign of something more sinister than a sudden increase in sexiness.

6. Pain in the shoulder

Cancers of the top part of the lungs - pancoast tumours - can damage a nerve that runs from the upper chest to the neck causing severe shoulder pain.

Other clues are a droopy eyelid, small pupil in that eye and loss of sweating on that side of the face.

Chest, back or abdominal pain, misattributed to heart or other medical conditions, may also signify lung cancer.

Other causes of shoulder pain include frozen shoulder. Find out more about frozen shoulder

7. Weak muscles

Muscle weakness making everyday activities harder can be caused by Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome, an autoimmune disease that disrupts transmission of nerve messages to muscles.

Although rare, the underlying cause in slightly more than half of cases is small-cell lung cancer.

8. Appetite loss

If your normally healthy appetite has deserted you and the pounds are melting away without dieting, see the doctor.

Loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss are highly associated with cancer, including lung cancer. On the flip side, small-cell lung cancer can sometimes cause Cushing’s, which leads to fluid retention and weight gain.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.