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Effects of Lung Cancer on the Body

Posted on February 11, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Daniel Bukszpan

Lung cancer is often difficult to detect early on. Thus, it’s important for people to know how the condition can affect different parts of their body, so they can identify potential symptoms as soon as possible.

The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 56 percent when it’s detected early enough and is limited only to the lungs. Unfortunately, only 16 percent of cases are diagnosed at that early stage.

Once lung tumors have spread to other organs, the five-year survival rate drops to 5 percent. Therefore, learning the signs and symptoms of lung cancer that has spread to other organs is an essential component of early detection.

Systemic Symptoms

Lung cancer affects the body in several ways. Following are some of the symptoms that can result from the condition — or other causes, including cancer treatments.

Fatigue and Shortness of Breath

Fatigue is a debilitating feeling of exhaustion. Along with physical pain, fatigue is one of the most commonly reported physical effects of lung cancer.

Notably, fatigue and shortness of breath are both side effects of chemotherapy, the most common form of treatment for lung cancer. Chemotherapy reduces your red blood cells, which distribute oxygen throughout the body, providing physical energy. Fewer red blood cells means less oxygen, which in turn means less energy.

Given that lung cancer and chemotherapy both cause fatigue and shortness of breath, determining the cause of either symptom can be difficult. Is it the tumor, the treatment — something else? Smoking, for example, can reduce lung capacity and produce fatigue, obscuring the onset of lung cancer symptoms. Additionally, the emotional toll of living with cancer — including depression — can cause fatigue.

Some specialists recommend keeping a side-effect journal to better help you understand the cause of your fatigue. You can keep a daily written record of your physical symptoms, such as when you felt fatigued, how long it lasted, and what you may have been doing or eating before the fatigue crept in.

Sharing these observations with your doctor can provide a clearer picture of what is causing the fatigue and how to treat it.

Loss of Appetite

Another common physical effect of lung cancer is a loss of appetite, which can lead to unhealthy weight loss. Approximately half of all people with cancer experience cancer anorexia-cachexia syndrome (CACS). Anorexia refers to loss of appetite, and cachexia refers to malnutrition and physical wasting.

People undergoing chemotherapy or radiation can experience diarrhea, nausea, changes in taste, and vomiting, all of which can contribute to cachexia. The emotional burden of living with a cancer diagnosis can affect eating habits as well.

Loss of appetite and weight can have a marked effect on your quality of life. The symptoms are associated with a higher rate of post-surgical complications, as well as with chemotherapy that is less effective and has more side effects. CACS can also affect your ability to receive specific treatments.

Medications used to treat cachexia include Cannabinoids and Dronabinols — such as Marinol or Syndros — and corticosteroids such as Prednisone, Predonisolone, or Methylprednisone.

Respiratory Symptoms

Respiratory symptoms can also be caused by lung cancer, including:

  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath

Lung cancer can cause fluid to build up in the chest cavity, particularly in the space surrounding the affected lung. Known as pleural effusion, this buildup can cause symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain.

People receiving either chemotherapy or radiation treatment for lung cancer should be aware that both treatments employ ionizing radiation, which can cause short- or long-term damage to healthy lung tissue. That, in turn, can lead to breathing difficulties.

Successfully managing these symptoms is key to improving day-to-day living of people with lung cancer. A combination of pulmonary rehabilitation and social support, tailored to your specific needs, can be effective.

Other Symptoms To Watch Out For

It’s easy to envision that lung cancer would affect lung function and cause respiratory issues. The condition has other lesser-known effects, however, that you may not associate with lung cancer or its treatment.

Heart Conditions

Cardiotoxicity, which is damage to the heart muscle, may develop after lung-cancer treatment. Some may be reversible, but most of it usually is not. However, certain medications — known as cardioprotective agents — can help reduce the likelihood of cardiotoxicity in people with lung cancer.

People with lung cancer may experience other cardiologic conditions, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and irregular heartbeat. Additionally, if your cancer has spread to your lymph nodes, you may need them removed entirely. This can lead to an accumulation of lymphatic fluid, known as lymphedema, which can cause pain and swelling in the extremities — especially the feet and hands.

Bone Metastasis

Any form of cancer can spread to other parts of the body, a process known as metastasis. Lung cancer is among the types of cancer most likely to cause metastasis to the bone. When bone metastasis occurs, it can cause significant physical pain.

Bone metastasis can cause symptoms including:

  • Weakened bones that fracture more easily
  • Weakness in the arms or legs
  • Bowel and bladder incontinence
  • Hypercalcemia — increased calcium levels in the blood — which can result in constipation, nausea, and vomiting
  • Joint pains

Other Symptoms

Lung cancer can also cause headaches, another symptom that may be difficult to initially attribute to the illness. This results when the cancer has metastasized to the brain.

How To Prevent Lung Cancer

Monitoring yourself for the aforementioned symptoms is an important step toward detecting and stopping lung cancer early on.

Beyond that, doctors strongly recommend that anyone who smokes cigarettes quit now. Your risk of developing lung cancer increases with every cigarette (or e-cigarette) you smoke and with every year that you engage in the habit. Fortunately, you can lower the risk of lung cancer by quitting. Quitting smoking does not guarantee you’ll never get lung cancer, but it substantially increases your chances of avoiding it.

You Are Not Alone With Lung Cancer

By joining MyLungCancerTeam, the social network and online community for those living with lung cancer, you gain a support group of people who understand the challenges of managing lung cancer.

Are you living with lung cancer and worried about its other effects on your body? Do you have any symptoms that you think might be linked to your lung cancer? Share your experiences in a comment below or post on MyLungCancerTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Daniel Bukszpan is a freelance writer for MyHealthTeam. Learn more about him here.

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