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Lung cancer symptoms and signs

What symptoms can lung cancer cause?

It's impossible to say exactly what symptoms somebody with lung cancer might get. They will vary between people, and how advanced their cancer is.

Generally, in the early stages of lung cancer, symptoms will mostly affect your lungs, or the area around your lungs. As the cancer becomes more advanced, you may find you start to have symptoms in other parts of your body.

In the diagram below we've highlighted some common symptoms that people with lung cancer might get.

It's important to remember that exactly what symptoms you have will depend on:

  • How advanced your cancer is (that is, if it has spread, or metastasised)
  • Where any tumours are growing

Remember, everyone is different – you may not have all these symptoms, and you may have some that aren't shown here. If you're ever worried, get in touch with your healthcare team.

Adapted from the American Cancer Society, 2016.1

Lung cancer causes a number of symptoms in this area, including:

  • A cough that won’t go away
  • Coughing up blood, or rust-coloured phlegm
  • Chest pain that is worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness (where your voice sounds raspy, breathy, or strained)
  • Shortness of breath (feeling like you can’t catch your breath)
  • Infections (such as pneumonia or bronchitis) that won’t go away, or keep coming back
  • New wheezing

You may notice a yellowing of your eyes or skin. This could be caused by jaundice, which is a disease that happens if your liver is damaged (for example if your cancer starts growing in your liver).

As cancer spreads and grows, it may create lumps in places on your body. Sometimes these grow in the lymph nodes, which are found all over the body but are especially noticeable in the neck, armpits, and groin (at the top of your legs, in your inner thigh) area.

If the cancer spreads to the brain or other parts of your nervous system, you may experience:

  • Headaches
  • Epileptic fits
  • Numbness or tingling of the arms or legs
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble balancing

You may notice that you have lost your appetite and are unintentionally losing weight.

If cancer has spread to the bone, you may experience bone pain. To begin with, it may feel like you’ve pulled a muscle or have sprained something. But over time, this pain can become worse.

How can I manage the symptoms of my lung cancer?

The following information gives you some tips on how to relieve some of the more common symptoms of lung cancer. If you think that any of these approaches might be useful to you, discuss them with your healthcare team.


You should always contact your healthcare team if you experience any change in your symptoms or develop a new symptom. You should not try to treat any symptoms with medicines unless your healthcare team has advised you that it’s safe to do so.


Having a frequent cough, or a cough that won’t go away, can be distressing for many people. It can become painful, and might interrupt sleep and rest.

Tips for managing coughing:2
  • Consider using a humidifier to add warmth and moisture to the air, and try to reduce your exposure to anything that might irritate your lungs (e.g. smoke, pollen, dust, etc.)
  • Try to sleep or rest on your side, rather than your back or stomach
  • Ask if your nurse can teach you some deep breathing exercises, or a technique called 'splinting' (using a pillow or towel to support your chest) to help your cough

Also known as 'dyspnoea', breathlessness can be quite distressing to experience. It can feel as though it is difficult to get enough air, and some people find that it can make them feel quite anxious. It’s important that you try and remain calm if you experience breathlessness, and try not to panic.

Tips for managing breathlessness:2
  • Use an oxygen tank if you have been prescribed one by your healthcare team (always use this as your doctor or nurse has described to you previously)
  • Carry out some breathing exercises – ask your nurse for any advice on these
  • Remove anything near you that might be causing breathing difficulties (e.g. smoke, pollen, and other allergens)

Cancer can sometimes make people lose their appetite. There are a number of reasons for this – it could be that you are feeling nauseous or constipated, or maybe that your cancer is affecting the chemicals your body makes that are responsible for feeling hungry.

Whatever the reason, having a nutritious and balanced diet is important and will help you keep your strength up as you have treatment.

Tips for when you may have trouble eating or have little appetite:2
  • Eat little and often
  • Include foods that are energy-dense in your meals (for example nuts, dried fruits, dairy, and carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, and beans)
  • Ask if your healthcare team can put you in touch with a dietician who specialises in supporting people with cancer

For more ways to maintain a healthy diet while experiencing side effects, explore our diet and nutrition page – click here

Headaches could be a sign of tumours growing in the brain; however they can also be caused by a number of other things – this is why it’s important that you discuss them with your doctor to find out what’s causing them.

Headaches caused by cancer can happen at any time of the day and, if they are very bad, might make you wake up at night. They might make you feel nauseous and are generally uncomfortable.

Tips for managing headaches:2
  • Relaxing may help – try massage, acupuncture, or other techniques that might help minimise stress
  • Headaches may be made worse by some food types. Ask your healthcare team about any foods you could try to avoid in order to minimise the risk of getting a headache
  • Applying a cold compress to your forehead might give some relief


If you experience any of the following symptoms with your headache, you should call your healthcare provider as soon as possible:2

  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Uncontrollable vomiting
  • Seizures (sometimes called 'fits')
  • Loss of consciousness




  • Vision loss (for example blurriness, seeing double, vision going black)
  • Feeling numb
  • Confusion

You should also seek advice from your healthcare provider if this is the first time you have experienced headaches, or if your headache is sudden or persistent.

A number of things could make you feel dizzy, including if cancer has spread to the brain. Dizziness in itself isn’t harmful, but it might make you feel nauseous and could lead to a fall.

Tips for managing dizziness:2
  • Try and keep hydrated – sip water slowly but frequently
  • Avoid sudden movements when changing position (e.g. when standing up from a seated position)
  • Be especially careful about your safety – dizziness could lead to a fall. Accept help and support if you need it, including the use of a cane or crutch

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms experienced by people with cancer. It is a tiredness that is not relieved by rest or sleep, which may affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally.2

Tips for managing fatigue:2
  • Try taking a regular walk. It may sound like strange advice, but exercise can help manage fatigue by gradually boosting your energy levels in the long term
  • Try and have rest periods throughout the day
  • Stress can cause fatigue or make it worse – try and find activities that take your mind off your worries, or talk with your healthcare team about emotional support that might help you

If cancer starts growing in the bones, it can lead to pain. Depending on where the cancer has spread to, this pain may lead to further issues. For example, if the arms or legs are affected, pain usually becomes more severe with movement. If the spine is affected, pain is usually worse at night or just after resting.

Telling your healthcare team about any pain is important so that they can monitor its progression and help you find a way to manage it.

Tips for managing bone pain:2
  • Hold a hot or cold compress over areas of pain
  • Rest if you can, or find something that might distract you from any pain you are feeling
  • Some types of massage or acupuncture might help – ask your healthcare team for more advice

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  1. American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer, 2016. Available from: Last accessed August 2021. Newton A et al. Mosby's Oncology Nursing Advisor. First Edition. Mosby Elsevier. 2009.
  2.  Newton A et al. Mosby's Oncology Nursing Advisor. First Edition. Mosby Elsevier. 2009.