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The Early Symptoms of Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers

People who smoke are at much higher risk of developing lung cancer than people who don’t smoke; in fact, 90 percent of all lung cancer cases in the United States are caused by smoking. However, there are also a small percentage of lung cancer cases that develop in people who have never smoked and have no family history of the disease, referred to as non-smokers’ lung cancer or NSCLC.

Chances are, you don’t smoke. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still get lung cancer. According to a recent report by The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 12 million American adults live with a history of prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke – and an estimated 3,000 non-smokers will die from lung cancer caused by it every year. For example, if you have spent at least 10 years working in a job where there is exposure to secondhand smoke on an occasional or regular basis, you have a 45 percent higher risk for developing lung cancer compared to someone who hasn’t been exposed.

The Early Symptoms of Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers

Difficulty Breathing

If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer and didn’t smoke, your doctor may have mentioned that one of your symptoms is dyspnea (difficulty breathing). This symptom can often be a sign that something’s wrong with your lungs. The diagnosis might come as a shock, especially if you never smoked or were exposed to secondhand smoke. It’s important to remember that many people who never smoked develop lung cancer each year. Many doctors believe environmental exposure to radon gas, asbestos and other carcinogens increases your risk for developing lung cancer. What Happens if You Develop Difficult Breathing?

What Happens if You Develop Difficult Breathing?

The most common symptom associated with lung cancer is breathing problems. If you have trouble breathing, there’s a chance you could be suffering from early stage lung cancer, but there are other conditions that cause similar symptoms such as asthma or bronchitis. It’s imperative to get any troubling symptoms checked out by a medical professional, even if it’s unlikely you have lung cancer. Lung cancer is treatable when caught early; however, when left untreated or advanced too far it can be deadly. Know the signs and get them checked out immediately if something isn’t right.

Coughing up blood

If you develop a persistent cough or if breathing becomes difficult when you exercise, see your doctor to get it checked out. Even if it’s not lung cancer, he or she will probably refer you to a pulmonologist (or specialist in lung disease) for further evaluation. Your doctor might want to order one or more tests, such as an X-ray, CT scan, PET scan, bronchoscopy (looking inside with a tube), and/or biopsy. If tests show that you have early lung cancer, there are two main types: small cell and non-small cell carcinoma.

Coughing up blood

Chest pains or tightness

The most common symptom of lung cancer is chest pain or tightness, usually felt in one area. You may feel like you’re having a heart attack, or it could feel like a heavy weight on your chest. Chest pains tend to happen when you are resting, especially when lying down. It’s important to note that lung cancer pain doesn’t go away with rest, whereas angina (chest pain caused by coronary artery disease) does. Other symptoms can help differentiate between these conditions. The location and duration of your pain is also important: If it lasts longer than 20 minutes or spreads to other parts of your body, contact your doctor immediately.

Shortness of breath even when resting

Shortness of breath is a very common symptom for lung cancer, occurring about half of all non-smokers with lung cancer. This could also be shortness of breath from another respiratory problem, but if it happens even when you are resting and not doing anything to cause stress on your lungs, it is something that you should see a doctor about. Shortness of breath can be caused by other things like heart disease or asthma, so your doctor will want to rule out other causes before determining that it’s lung cancer. The good news is that once ruled out as another cause, there are many effective treatments for relieving shortness of breath associated with lung cancer.


While many people associate wheezing with asthma, it can also be an early symptom of lung cancer. While doctors say only about 20 percent of patients with early stage lung cancer have a chronic cough, for those who do, that coughing is often related to wheezing. In fact, if you’re over 50 and you experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing on most days for three months straight—you should see your doctor to check for signs of lung cancer. If caught early enough and treated promptly and effectively, stage I non-small cell lung cancer patients have a nearly 90 percent chance at survival.

Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss

While there are a variety of possible causes for these two symptoms, they may be an early sign that something is wrong. When these two things happen at once, it’s called anorexia cachexia syndrome, and it can often mean you have advanced cancer or another serious condition. Since non-smokers tend to be older and more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses than smokers are, weight loss and loss of appetite are two signs doctors look for when trying to determine if someone has lung cancer. If you’ve recently lost weight without trying or if you’re not hungry (even though you used to eat a lot), talk with your doctor about getting checked out for lung cancer.



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