When a person has lung cancer, tumors develop in the lungs. In time, they can spread to other parts of the body, and various complications can arise.
Many people with lung cancer do not notice any signs or symptoms in the early stages. Over time, however, they may experience health issues, such us coughing up blood and having swelling due to a buildup of fluid.
This article looks at some of the common complications of lung cancer and lung cancer treatment, as well as some ways of managing them.
As lung cancer develops, a range of complications can occur.
- facial swelling
- fluid around the lungs
- blood clots
- high calcium levels
- problems with the nervous system, such as spinal cord compression and neuropathy
- cardiovascular problems, including blood clots
- blockages in the airways or food pipe
- tumors in other parts of the body, due to metastasis
- mental health problems
Below, we look at each of these in more detail.
Facial swelling can sometimes be a complication of lung cancer. It can occur when tumors in the lungs obstruct the flow of blood in a blood vessel known as the superior vena cava. Specialists refer to this as superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS).
- distention of the veins in the neck and chest wall
- breathlessness on exertion
- swelling in the arms
In some cases, it can be the first sign that appears.
A 2018 case study describes the experience of one person who approached a dermatologist about swelling around the eyes and a feeling of swelling in the face and throat. Diagnostic tests showed that the person had small-cell lung cancer (SCLC).
Excess fluid around lungs
In some cases, a doctor can drain the excess fluid to relieve symptoms. Other options include reducing the pleural space by introducing irritants into it or placing a catheter.
Higher risk of infection
People with lung cancer have a
Reasons include the following:
- Cancer has already compromised lung health, increasing the risk of bronchitis or pneumonia.
- Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy can affect the immune system and the body’s ability to fight infections.
- There is a risk of bacteria entering the lungs during surgery.
A doctor may recommend treatment with antibiotics.
As cancer progresses, it spreads to other parts of the body. Cancer cells can move from the lungs to the liver, bones, brain, and other areas through the lymphatic system or bloodstream.
In the later stages, cancer may affect many parts of the body, but it will still be lung cancer if it began in the lungs.
Experts do not know exactly why this happens, but it may stem from tissue damage that occurs with cancer.
Spitting up blood
If a person produces blood-tinged sputum rather than blood, they may have another respiratory disease, such as bronchitis. If the sputum is also white and frothy, it may be a sign of congestive heart failure.
If a person spits up blood without coughing, they may have damage in the gastrointestinal tract.
According to a
Nevertheless, any production of blood, whether through spitting or coughing, needs urgent medical attention. It may or may not be a sign of cancer, but a doctor can make a correct diagnosis.
It happens for various reasons. One is that the bloodstream reabsorbs calcium from the bones when cancer damages them. Changes to the hormonal system can also contribute.
It is one of the later signs of cancer. Most people with cancer-related hypercalcemia will not live longer than 1 more year, according to experts.
Heart and cardiovascular problems
Lung cancer can also increase the risk of blood clots. This too may lead to heart problems.
Spinal cord compression
Metastatic spinal cord compression can happen when a vertebra collapses due to damage from cancer or if a tumor develops and presses on the spinal cord.
Early symptoms, such as edema, are reversible.
If neurological symptoms persist for more than 48 hours, however, the impact may be permanent.
Neuropathy is when there are tumors growing near the nerves in the arm or shoulder. A tumor compresses the nerves, leading to pain and weakness.
Blocked airways or food pipe
A tumor may grow into an airway in the lung and block it. This may lead to further complications, such as pneumonia or shortness of breath.
Lung cancers that grow near a person’s esophagus, or food pipe, can cause complications, making it difficult for a person to swallow.
If a person has a tumor near the food pipe, they may experience pain as food passes to the stomach.
Anyone with a diagnosis of lung cancer who experiences signs of depression, such as sleep problems, a low mood, and weight changes unrelated to the diagnosis, should seek guidance from a healthcare professional.
Treatment for lung cancer involves chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted drug therapy. A person may also have surgery.
Each treatment will have different side effects, but common problems include:
- increased risk of blood clots
- bone problems
- difficulty thinking and functioning, known as brain fog
- mouth and dental problems
- hair loss
- nausea and vomiting
- changes in weight
- higher risk of infection
Some of these effects can resemble the symptoms and complications of cancer, and it is not always easy to tell them apart.
Treatment can provide relief from many of the complications that occur with lung cancer. This may include:
- using medication to help manage pain and neuropathy
- draining fluid around the lungs or heart
- opening the airway with a stent
- removing tumors that block the airway
It is not always possible to prevent the complications of lung cancer, but some tips may help a person slow the progress of the disease and live more comfortably.
- getting regular exercise, if possible
- eating regular healthy meals
- staying in touch with friends and family
- joining a support group
- finding out as much as possible about the condition
- getting enough rest
- finding things a person can do and enjoys doing
- learning some breathing exercises for when breathing is difficult
- following the treatment plan in terms of medication, appointments, and follow-up
- using palliative care, such as pain relief, to manage symptoms
A doctor can advise on steps to take, depending on which stage of cancer a person has.
Lung cancer is a serious illness that can be fatal. However, current medical practice means many people are living longer than before since receiving a diagnosis.
Non-small-cell lung cancer is the most common type. People who receive a diagnosis in the early stages have a
Complications can result from both the cancer and the treatment. Some are temporary, but others will last or worsen over time. Some complications can be life threatening.
There are ways of managing complications and helping a person maximize their quality of life. A doctor can advise on ways to manage each type of complication.