Visible Signs of Lung Cancer

doctor examining a patient's neck

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There are several signs of lung cancer that may be visible to yourself or others. Though the symptoms and signs of a condition are often discussed together, there are important differences. Signs can be observed. They may occur alone, or in combination with symptoms.

In contrast, the symptoms of a condition are what someone senses and feels, but may not immediately be obvious to someone else, such as feeling tired or feeling dizzy.

While both signs and symptoms are important, sometimes we need to rely on signs. At times, this is because someone is critically ill and unable to let us know their symptoms. At other times, an individual may be experiencing symptoms but may not express these out of denial or a wish to spare family members his pain. In this case, it can be helpful for family members to have an awareness of the signs of the disease.

Signs in Never Smokers

It's important to note that signs and symptoms of lung cancer should be heeded in nonsmokers as well as smokers. Lung cancer in never smokers is currently the sixth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States  and lung cancer is increasing in young, never-smoking women (we don't know the reason why).

Visible Signs of Lung Cancer

The list below includes some (but not all) important signs of lung cancer. Keep in mind that this list does not include some important symptoms of lung cancer such as shortness of breath, or lung pain, back pain, or shoulder pain.

Coughing up Blood

Coughing up blood, even if it is only a small spot on a tissue, is a reason to see your doctor.

Coughing up blood is the only sign of lung cancer in seven percent of people diagnosed with the disease.


Clubbing of the fingers is an accumulation of tissue in the fingers that causes the pulp of the fingers to look thick, and the nails to curl downwards. This results in spoon-shaped fingers. The most common cause of this is lung cancer, but clubbing may also be caused by other conditions such as celiac sprue.


Certainly, hoarseness can be caused by many conditions, only one of which is lung cancer. If you or a loved one have unexplained hoarseness, especially if you have other signs and symptoms or risk factors for lung cancer, talk to your doctor.


The symptom of wheezing is often associated with asthma, but there other causes of wheezing, including lung cancer.

Weight Loss

Some people may be excited if that weight just drops off for no cause, but unexplained weight loss could be an important symptom of cancers such as lung cancer.


Jaundice—a yellowish discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes—has many causes, one of which could be cancer. With lung cancer, jaundice most often occurs when the cancer spreads (metastasizes) to the liver.

Enlarged Lymph Nodes

Enlarged lymph nodes may be a sign of lung cancer. When this occurs, lymph nodes are most commonly felt just under the collarbone or in the neck.


In 30 to 40% of people with lung cancer, the cancer will spread to the bones. When this occurs the bones may become weaker and fracture easily.

Lung cancer may spread to bones in nearly any region of the body but is somewhat unique in that it may spread to the bones in the hands and feet.

Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

Superior Vena Cava Syndrome (SVC Syndrome) is a condition that occurs in 2 to 4 percent of people with lung cancer. This syndrome, which occurs most commonly with lung cancers near the top of the lungs, occurs when the tumor pushes on and obstructs the large blood vessel returning blood in the neck (the superior vena cava). Signs include swelling of the face, neck, and arms, difficulty swallowing and breathing, and a bluish tinge to the skin among other signs.

Pancoast Syndrome

A droopy eyelid (Horner's syndrome) and flushing on one side of the face could be a sign of something known as Pancoast Syndrome. These are usually caused by lung cancers near the top of the lungs that invade the chest wall.

Paraneoplastic Syndrome

Some lung cancer cells secrete substances (or the body secretes substances in response to the tumor) that may cause a variety of unusual signs. The symptoms associated with these substances are referred to as paraneoplastic syndrome and can take a great many forms. Some of these include a high calcium level in the blood, breast growth in men, a low blood sodium level, and an irregular gait.

A Note About Diagnosis

If you or a loved one have any of the signs noted above, make an appointment to see your doctor. Lung cancer is most treatable in the early stages of the disease. When you are evaluated, make sure you are checked out thoroughly, even if you never smoked. Keep in mind that chest X-rays can miss lung cancer, and do so up to 25% of the time.

A Word From Verywell

The list above includes only a few possible signs of lung cancer. If you or a loved one have any signs or symptoms that are unusual or unexplained, it's important to make an appointment to see your doctor. Keep in mind that even though lung cancer is often associated with smoking, 20 percent of women who develop lung cancer have never smoked. Anyone who has lungs can get lung cancer.

If you smoked in the past (or have had other exposures that can cause lung cancer such as exposure to radon in the home, or occupational exposures) talk to your doctor about lung cancer screening.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer.