Symptoms and Diagnosis

In this section we’re going to take a look at:

Remember, everyone is different and your symptoms and experience may be different from that described below. If you have any further questions, be sure to ask your medical professional.


People with early stage lung cancer can often have no symptoms so the disease goes unnoticed until it spreads to other parts of the body. However, some of the symptoms which can be apparent in the early stages are:

  • Noisy breathing or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Hoarseness (a scratchy or husky voice)
  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time
  • Coughing up blood or rust-coloured spit
  • Chest and upper back pain associated with coughing, deep breathing or laughing
  • Frequent chest infections (e.g. bronchitis or pneumonia)

Many of these symptoms may have other causes, so it’s important to see your doctor if you experience any of these.

Lung cancer is sometimes diagnosed in people who don’t have any symptoms, but who are having a chest x-ray or scan for another problem.

A Diagnosis of Lung Cancer

A diagnosis of lung cancer usually begins with a visit to your GP to check out your symptoms. Your GP is likely to ask you a series of questions about your current and previous health, including your smoking history. If your doctor suspects lung cancer, he or she will refer you for a number of tests.

These can include:

  • A chest x-ray: This is an x-ray that will reveal whether there are any abnormalities in your lungs.
  • Imaging tests: These are tests which give your doctor pictures and more information about any tumours in the lung. There are a number of scans you could have including:
    • A CT scan
    • An MRI scan
    • A PET scan.
  • Cell collection test: This involves collecting a sample of your early morning spit for three days in the row. This is then analysed and can be useful for finding cancer that starts in the main air pipes.
  • Thoracentesis: This is a test done if fluid has gathered around the lungs. A needle is inserted between the ribs and the fluid is then drained and analysed for cancer cells.
  • A bronchoscopy: This is a procedure which allows the doctor to look inside the lung airways and take samples of the cells. It is done under local anaesthetic.
  • A fine needle biopsy: In this test a surgeon inserts a fine needle through your chest wall and into the lung in order removes cells from the tumour to determine whether it is cancerous. It is done under local anaesthetic.

Stages of Lung Cancer

The results of your biopsy will be used to determine what stage of lung cancer you have.

The staging of cancer is simply a way of determining how far the cancer has spread. There are four stages of lung cancer and these are:



Stage I

Only one lobe of the lung is affected.

Stage II

The tumour has spread to nearby lymph nodes or it has grown into the chest wall.

Stage III

The tumour has spread to the lymph nodes in the centre of the chest (this is known as the mediastinum) or the neck.

Stage IV

(Metastatic, advanced or secondary)

The cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as the bones or liver.

Your doctor will make treatment decisions based on the stage of cancer you have, the size and location of the tumour and your general health.