lung cancer illustration
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Is It Lung Cancer?

In its early stages, lung cancer doesn't typically have symptoms you can see or feel. Later, it often causes coughing, wheezing, and chest pain. But there are other, lesser-known effects that can show up, too -- in places you may not expect. (Of course, lung cancer isn't the only thing that can cause these symptoms.)

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finger clubbing
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Fatter Fingertips

Some lung tumors make hormone-like chemicals. One of them pushes more blood and fluid to the tissues in your fingertips, so they look thicker or larger than usual. The skin next to your nails may seem shiny, or your nails may curve more than usual when you look at them from the side. It's not common, but finger clubbing is strongly linked to lung cancer: Around 80% of people who have it also have the disease.

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woman with upset stomach
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Tummy Troubles

One or two of every 10 people with cancer develop high calcium levels, a condition called hypercalcemia. Too much calcium in your blood can give you belly aches and make you queasy or constipated. You may not feel like eating and be really thirsty. Another hormone-like substance that some tumors make will mess with your kidneys, causing cramps and nausea.

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hand pulling down blinds
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Mental Health Issues

In a Danish study, the odds of being diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer were higher for people who had seen a mental health professional for the first time in the past year for illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and dementia. It might be because of how the cancer affects your immune system or hormones, or that it can spread to the brain. High calcium levels related to cancer can also cause confusion, muddled thinking, and depression.

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man with upper back pain
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Back or Shoulder Pain

A Pancoast tumor is a type of lung cancer that grows in the upper part of your lung and spreads to your ribs, vertebrae in your spine, nerves, and blood vessels. Because of where these tumors grow, they rarely affect your respiratory system. They're more likely to make your shoulder blade, upper back, and arm hurt instead.

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fatigued woman
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A low red blood cell count, or anemia, is a very common effect of lung cancer. Anemia can make you really tired because your body's tissues aren't getting enough oxygen. And generally speaking, cancer cells like to feed off the nutrients you need to power through a day. So when you have the disease, you may feel like you're dragging.

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dizziness effect at home
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Being Off-Balance

Small-cell lung cancers may tell your immune system to attack your nervous system, which can in turn affect how your muscles work. It may be hard to stand up when you're sitting, or you might feel unsteady. You could be dizzy from anemia or from a backup in your superior vena cava, the large vein that moves blood from your head to your heart, if it's crowded by a tumor in the upper right lung.

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checking weight at home
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Weight Change

Some people with small-cell lung cancer cell get Cushing's syndrome. The cancer may tell your body to make a hormone called ACTH, which raises the level of cortisol. This leads to fluid retention and weight gain. (You may bruise really easily and feel drowsy, too.)

On the other hand, hypercalcemia and SIADH, a hormone problem that affects your kidneys, tend to make you lose your appetite, so you may start to drop pounds without trying.

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woman with horner syndrome
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Eye Problems

Pancoast tumors can also affect the nerves to your eyes and part of your face. This is called Horner syndrome. Symptoms include a small pupil in one of your eyes with a droopy eyelid. You also won't be able to sweat as well on that side of your face.

Small-cell lung cancer that turns your immune system against your nervous system can show up as trouble seeing.

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symptoms of gynecomastia
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Swollen Breasts in Men

It's rare for lung cancer to be the cause of gynecomastia, but it's possible. Large-cell lung cancer can disrupt your hormone balance and cause tenderness and swelling in male breast tissue.

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hands holding aspirin and glass of water
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A tumor in the right place can squeeze your superior vena cava, narrowing it so it's harder for blood to get through. The backed-up blood can make your head pound. You could even pass out. High calcium levels often give you splitting headaches, too.

New headaches or changes in your headache pattern are a reason to see your doctor.

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cardiogram printout
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Heart Problems

Both hypercalcemia and anemia can cause symptoms such as a fast or irregular heartbeat. If your heart issues are from hypercalcemia, chances are it's severe, and you could have a heart attack or go into a coma. Severe anemia can also cause chest pains and shortness of breath.

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superior vena cava syndrome
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Puffy Face, Neck, or Arms

When your superior vena cava is choked off by a tumor, blood from the upper parts of your body doesn't have anywhere else to go. Your neck, arms, and face may swell from the extra fluid that's waiting to get through. You may also get a bluish-red skin color on your chest.

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metastatic lung cancer
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Weakness and Achiness

When lung cancer spreads (metastasizes), cells often travel to your bones through the bloodstream and form new tumors, or lesions. These lesions typically damage your bones, making them more fragile and painful. A mineral imbalance from hypercalcemia or SIADH can make you weak and hurt all over. If the cancer affects your nervous system, it could weaken muscles so that you have trouble speaking or swallowing.

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deep vein thrombosis
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Blood Clots: DVT and PE

Someone with lung cancer is more likely to get a blood clot in their legs or arms (called deep vein thrombosis) and lungs (pulmonary embolism). We don't know exactly why. The cancer could cause inflammation that triggers the clotting process, or chemicals from the tumor itself might cause clots. Your doctor may do tests if you have a blood clot and other symptoms of cancer, too, like unexplained weight loss.  

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 04/17/2020 Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 17, 2020


1) Eraxion / Thinkstock

2) Clinical Photography, Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, UK / Science Source

3) BSIP / UIG / Getty Images

4) ArianeMeyer / Thinkstock

5) Staras / Thinkstock

6) Image Source / Getty Images

7) Jupiterimages / Thinkstock

8) Wavebreakmedia / Thinkstock

9) Dr P. Marazzi / Science Source

10) Ozgurdonmaz / Getty Images

11) Spukkato / Thinkstock

12) Olga355 / Thinkstock

13) Herbert L. Fred, MD, and Hendrik A. van Dijk / Wikipedia

14) Scott Camazine / Science Source

15) Molly Borman / Science Source


SOURCES: "Lung Cancer 101: Symptoms of Lung Cancer," "Caring for Your Bones When You Have Cancer: Introduction."

Cancer Research UK: "Finger clubbing."

Lung India: "Digital clubbing."

Cancer.Net: "Hypercalcemia."

American Cancer Society: "Signs and Symptoms of Small Cell Lung Cancer," "Anemia in People With Cancer."

International Journal of Cancer: "Psychiatric disorder as a first manifestation of cancer: A 10‐year population‐based study."

Medscape: "Psychiatric Symptoms May Be First Sign of Undetected Cancer."

Moffitt Cancer Center: "Pancoast Tumor Treatment Information."

Journal of Thoracic Oncology: "Targeting Anemia in Patients with Lung Cancer." "Treatment Side Effects -- Fatigue."

American Family Physician: "Gynecomastia."

Rogel Cancer Center, Michigan Medicine: "Bone Metastasis."

National Blood Clot Alliance: "Blood Clot FAQs -- Cancer and Blood Clots."

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 17, 2020

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.