June 03, 2021

How Lung Cancer Feels – Unexpected Signs, Symptoms

Man outside grabbing his shoulder in pain.

While persistent coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest pain are classic signs of lung cancer, there are a number of surprising signs and symptoms that can signal lung cancer.

Lung cancer accounts for about 13% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States and is the leading cause of death for men.

Expected lung cancer symptoms include:

  • Coughing that doesn’t go away or gets worse.
  • Shortness of breath – feeling like you can’t breathe or get enough air.
  • Coughing up blood, phlegm or mucus.
  • Chest pain that gets worse with laughing, coughing or deep breathing.
  • Wheezing – making a high-pitched whistling sound when exhaling.

Many of these symptoms – both the classic type and those which are more unexpected — can be indicators of other types of conditions, so it’s best to discuss these signs with your healthcare provider. None of these signs definitely mean lung cancer, but having one or more of these symptoms is concerning. It’s time to schedule a checkup to discuss these symptoms.

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Unexpected symptoms of lung cancer

Not every lung cancer symptom is linked to your lungs, or breathing. These unexpected signs include:

  • Shoulder pain. Shoulder pain that isn’t associated with any loss of motion, pain that occurs at rest, and pain that’s worse at night may be a symptom of lung cancer. If the cancer is in the left lung, you will have left shoulder pain; if it’s on the right, you’ll have right shoulder pain. For people with a type of cancer called mesothelioma, the shoulder pain associated with lung cancer can be mild, averaging a rating of four on a scale of 1-10. With other types of cancer, the pain may be severe. Also, in some cases, a person’s lung cancer shoulder pain description may include the fact that it radiates down their arm and can include tingling and numbness.
  • Hoarseness or change in voice. A tumor in the lung can press on the nerve controlling the vocal cords, causing your voice to sound strained or raspy, or sound lower in tone or softer in volume.
  • Balance problems. A tumor located near the superior vena cava (a large vein that takes blood from your head and arms back to the heart) can cause blood to back up in the vein, causing dizziness or balance loss. 
  • Weight. Weight gain or loss can be a sign. Small-cell lung cancer tumors cause the body to make cortisol which causes fluid retention and weight gain. Others lose weight caused by higher calcium levels which cause appetite loss.
  • Blood clots. Blood clots in your legs, arms or lungs are more likely to develop.
  • Bone pain. When lung cancer spreads to the bone, it can cause bone pain in the spine/back, pelvis or large bones of the arms and legs. This pain gets worse when moving, at night, or when lying on your back.
  • Clubbed fingers or fatter fingers. About 80 percent of those with clubbed fingers have lung cancer.
  • Digestive problems. High levels of calcium in the blood may cause problems such as stomach aches, constipation or nausea.
  • Extreme thirst and frequent urination. Again, the higher calcium levels are responsible for this condition.
  • Fatigue or feeling tired. When the cancer causes the lungs to not function as well, patients become anemic, leading to fatigue.
  • Headaches. High blood calcium levels can also cause headaches.
  • Heart problems. Again, high calcium levels are responsible for rapid or irregular heartbeat. Problems may range from chest pain and shortness of breath for those who are anemic to having a heart attack or going into a coma for very high calcium levels.
  • Puffy face, neck or arms. This can include swelling in the face, or a purplish tint to your chest.
  • Quitting smoking is suddenly easy. Cancerous cells in the lungs may interfere with nicotine addiction.
  • Swollen breasts in men. Large-cell lung cancer can interfere with a man’s hormone levels, causing swelling and tenderness in his breasts.
  • Anxiety, depression or dementia. 

Get a quick read on your personal risk factors for lung cancer by taking Baptist Health’s free Lung Cancer Health Risk Assessment today. 

Next Steps and Useful Resources

Find a Provider Near You
The Importance of Cancer Screenings Post-Pandemic
What to Know Before Scheduling Your Lung Cancer Screening
How to Help Prevent Lung Cancer by Reducing Your Risk

Learn More.