7 warning signs of lung cancer in women
In 10 years, lung cancer has become the second leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide, after breast cancer.
Although the disease often progresses silently, certain signs should attract attention. Coughs, pains… Review of the 7 warning signs in womenwith Dr. Maurice Pérol, oncologist.
Photo Christina Morillo in Pexels
There is a common misconception that lung cancer occurs primarily in men.
Wrong: Since 2010, lung cancer is rising sharply in women due to increased smoking and kills 10,000 women each year, according to the National Cancer Institute (InCa).
It is the second cause of death by cancer in women in France, after breast cancer.
Knowing your signs helps diagnose you more quickly and increases your chances of recovery.
What are the possible symptoms in women? Are they different from those in men? Does lung cancer hurt? Answer with Dr. Maurice Pérol, an oncologist specialized in thoracic cancers at the Centre Léon Bérard in Lyon.
Does lung cancer hurt?
Often it is the formation of metastases in other organs that will be symptomatic and reveal the disease.
“The lung is an organ that has very little innervation for pain,” Dr. Pérol explains at first.
Therefore, a tumor can develop in the lung, reach 5 or 6 cm, be painless, and go unnoticed for a long time.” That’s why lung cancer is often discovered by chance in a medical imaging exam performed to look for another pathology or is detected at an advanced or metastatic stage.
“Often it is the formation of metastases in other organs that will be symptomatic and reveal the disease,” explains our interviewer.
For example, metastases in the bones can cause bone pain or broken bones, metastases in the brain can cause severe headaches, paralysis on one side of the body, or memory problems…
What are the symptoms that suggest lung cancer in women?
At the beginning of the disease, the tumor is too small and does not cause any symptoms.
As it grows, the tumor often causes respiratory problems and an alteration of general health (unusual and persistent fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite…). However, when they persist, certain symptoms can attract attention:
A nocturnal cough
A cough that persists and intensifies is not specifically related to lung cancer, but should be a warning.
Especially if it is stronger at night or in the morning, when you are lying down, and if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as pain in the chest or thorax, shortness of breath, wheezing, spitting blood or general malaise (nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite…)
In this case, you should consult your doctor without delay, who will perform a clinical examination and may, if necessary, refer you to a specialist or prescribe tests such as a chest X-ray if cancer is suspected.
This test may be followed by a CT scan or a biopsy.
→ Smokers often think that coughing at night or in the morning is normal. However, this symptom is not insignificant and must be medically managed. Only a doctor can determine the cause of your cough.
Spitting up blood
“Bloody sputum or sputum is never harmless,” the oncologist warns.
In medical language, this is called hemoptysis. This bloodstained mucus spit should alert you and get you to your doctor quickly. If this symptom is missed, the disease that causes it can progress and get worse.
Coughing up blood is not always a sign of serious illness and can hide simple bronchitis, but it is important to note that it can also be a sign of lung cancer or other airway disease (pulmonary embolism, pneumonia…).
Only tests (a clinical exam followed by a lung x-ray and blood work) will help guide the diagnosis.
→ Coughing up blood when smoking should lead to immediate medical attention.
“When the tumor is large and reaches the pleura, it can cause chest pain that is intensified by coughing or deep breathing,” says Dr. Pérol. The pleura is a membrane attached to the lung that is highly innervated and can cause severe pain when attacked.
Difficulty in breathing
In the absence of proven heart problems, shortness of breath, unusual shortness of breath or wheezing may suggest lung cancer.
If these respiratory symptoms, which are fairly common and not specific to lung cancer, persist, especially if you smoke or have smoked (even if you stopped many years ago), see your doctor immediately.
More rarely, lung cancer can cause difficulty in swallowing (medically called dysphagia). This happens when the tumor compresses the esophagus.
This swallowing disorder is sometimes associated with “food mishandling,” which is when swallowed food or liquid passes through the airway (trachea) instead of into the digestive tract.
The average age of onset is between 60 and 65 for women, but a little later for men, 67 on average.
Paralysis on only one side of the body.
As the tumor grows and metastasizes to other organs, other physical manifestations may occur. The symptoms are different depending on the organ involved.
For example, metastases in the brain can cause severe headaches, nausea and vomiting, seizures, mental confusion, impaired balance, memory and speech, and sometimes hemiplegia – paralysis of one or more parts of the body on one side only, which can be total or partial.
The first step is to consult a neurologist to make a diagnosis and consider appropriate treatment.
The diagnosis is first clinical and then completed with other tests to determine the cause of the hemiplegia (stroke, tumor, etc.).
The vast majority of cancers can spread to the bones. This is the case with lung cancer, which when it metastasizes to the bones, can cause bone pain, especially in the spine, ribs, arms and legs.
Once the tumor cells settle in the bone, they “bite” into the bone, which can also cause vertebral collapse or bone fractures.
These symptoms should be a warning and lead you to see your doctor. Your doctor will first assess your symptoms, ask you about your medical history and risk factors, and perform a physical exam.
Additional tests, such as a bone scan or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, will then be performed to check for possible bone metastases.
Identical symptoms in women and men?
“The symptoms of lung cancer are identical in men and women. However, the average age of onset is between 60 and 65 years in women, but a little later in men (67 years on average).
Another difference between men and women is that a certain type of lung cancer is believed to be more common in women than in men: it is a cancer due to a genetic alteration called “mutation” (and therefore not related to exposure to tobacco).
It is still not known why this cancer affects women more than men,” the oncologist concludes. It should be noted that cancer due to a genetic alteration causes the same symptoms as tobacco-related cancer.
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