Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

What are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer symptoms usually appear only in more advanced cases.  Symptoms vary from person to person and may include:

  • A cough that doesn't go away and gets worse over time
  • Constant chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath, or wheezing
  • Loss weight and loss of appetite
  • Frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia

See your doctor right away if you notice any of these symptoms.

How is Lung Cancer Detected?

To help find the cause of symptoms, your doctor will review your medical history, smoking history, exposure to environmental and occupational substances, and family history of cancer.  He or she will also perform a physical exam, and may order a chest x-ray and other tests. 

To confirm the presence of lung cancer, the doctor must examine suspicious tissue from the lung.  To do this, the doctor removes a small sample of the tissue during a procedure called a biopsy.  Then the tissue is examined under a microscope.

There are some tests being developed that show promise in the early detection of lung cancer.  These tests have not yet been demonstrated to improve earlier detection and improved survival, but many researchers are working to develop tests that hopefully can make a difference in early lung cancer screening and survival.

If you are a current or former smoker and/or have any symptoms, talk to your doctor about diagnostic tests.

What is Staging?

Staging is part of the diagnosis and also determines to a large extent what your recommended treatment plan may be.  Staging means finding out if and how much the lung cancer has spread.  This is important because your treatment and the general outlook for your recovery and chance of cure depend upon the stage of your lung cancer.

How is Lung Cancer Treated?

One or more types of treatment can be used.  The kind of treatment used depends upon the type of cancer, its size, where it is in the lungs, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.  If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer, your healthcare team may want to talk to you about the following:

Surgery involves removing the tumor, along with the diseased part of the lung.  If the tumor is small and has not spread outside the lungs, surgery is about the best chance for a cure.  In fact, if lung cancer is discovered in the early stages, one can expect a more than 50 percent cure rate.

But some tumors cannot be removed because of their size and location.  And some patients may have other health problems that make surgery impossible.  In those cases, other options may be offered.

Radiation therapy uses powerful high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells.  The radiation is aimed at the tumor, and kills the cancer cells only in that area of the lungs.  Radiation can be used before surgery to shrink the tumor.  It may also be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells left in the lungs.

Chemotherapy uses special drugs to destroy cancer cells throughout the body.  Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells still present in nearby tissue or elsewhere in the body.  It may also be used in more advanced stages of the disease to relieve cancer symptoms.  Most of these drugs are either taken as a pill or given by IV (intravenous) line.

When you or a loved one is diagnosed with lung cancer, you may have many questions, and the answers may not always be clear at first.  Everyone with lung cancer is not the same and the options for treatment are not the same.  Here are some additional resources to help with the questions you may have.


Early detection of lung cancer can increase survival rates. Call the Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA or talk to your doctor about lung cancer screening.