Many people see a lung cancer diagnosis as a death sentence. That's understandable, since lung cancer kills more than 1.3 million people a year. But when caught early enough, lung cancer can be treatable and, often, curable. According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer that hasn't metastasized, or spread, is slightly more than 50 percent, as compared to nearly 4 percent for lung cancer that's already spread to other organ systems. So pay close attention to these early -- and sometimes surprising -- signs of lung cancer, and be assertive about bringing anything suspicious to your doctor's attention.
Depression or other mood changes
Researchers have recently noted a surprising connection between first-time diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric symptoms and lung cancer. In a surprising number of cases, cancer patients -- particularly those with lung cancer -- discover they have a tumor after being referred for psychiatric care. One study that followed more than four million people for ten years, for example, found that when people ages 50 to 64 were referred to a psychiatrist for the first time in their lives, the overall incidence of cancer increased almost fourfold.
How it feels: Psychiatric symptoms can take many forms, from the fatigue, lethargy, and low spirits characteristic of depression to racing, panicky thoughts. Irritability, unexplained outbursts of anger, and other personality changes also can indicate psychiatric issues. As one lung cancer patient recalls, "Everything just seemed to get to me."
What causes it: The connection between anxiety, depression, and lung cancer isn't clear, except that people may be feeling generally subpar without knowing why.
What to do: If you notice personality and mood changes that are out of character, either for yourself or someone else, talk about them and search for a cause. If they seem to come out of the blue, bring them to a doctor's attention and ask if there might be a physical explanation.
Getting sick over and over again with colds, flu, bronchitis, or even pneumonia may make you wonder if your immune system is to blame. But another possible culprit for repeated illness is lung cancer. That's especially true for women who smoke.
How it feels: The symptoms are the same as they are for unrelated colds, flus, and infections. The difference is in how persistent the symptoms are: either lasting a long time or going away only to recur.
What causes it: As the cancer settles into the tissues of the lung and the bronchial tubes, it causes symptoms similar to a cold or flu. Lung cancer also makes the lungs more susceptible to illness and infection. With the body's immune system busy fighting the cancer, it's less able to defend itself against germs, resulting in more serious infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
What to do: Keep close track if it seems as if you're getting sick more than usual, and bring the situation to your doctor's attention.