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Posted 11/25/2022 by Amelia Grant

What to Know About Lung Cancer Symptoms in Women

What to Know About Lung Cancer Symptoms in Women

Lung cancer signs and symptoms in women can differ from those seen in men. Different types of lung cancer affect different parts of the lungs, and the prevalence of each type varies between men and women.

Women are more likely to first experience fatigue and the gradual onset of shortness of breath, in addition to traditional symptoms such as a persistent cough or coughing up blood. Because these changes are subtle, they may be dismissed as the result of inactivity or normal aging.

When lung cancer is diagnosed in a woman, it is usually more advanced. The first symptoms may be related to the spread of the disease to the bones, brain, and other parts of the body.

This article will go over the most common and uncommon symptoms of lung cancer in women, the differences in how men and women develop lung cancer, complications, and when you should see your doctor.

Smoking Status

Women are more likely than men to be nonsmokers when they develop lung cancer. It is estimated that approximately 20% of women never smoke. Lung adenocarcinoma is much more common in nonsmokers, and it is already more common in women than in men.

The stage at Diagnosis

Women (and those who have never smoked) are also diagnosed at a later stage than men. This means that the tumor has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the bones or the brain.

Age at Diagnosis

Women are typically diagnosed at a younger age than men, and lung cancer in young adults (ages 30-54) is more common in women than in men.

Women may have fewer other medical conditions (co-morbidities) due to their younger age, which may affect the symptoms they experience. A chronic cough caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, for example, would be less common.

While roughly 20% of women with lung cancer are lifelong nonsmokers across all age groups, the number is much higher among young women diagnosed.

Frequent Symptoms

Nearly half of all lung cancer patients have metastases to other parts of the body. Stage 4 lung cancer is also known as metastatic lung cancer. The first symptoms of stage 4 lung cancer may be related to the effects of its spread to the bones, brain, liver, or adrenal glands.

Cough, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, weight loss, and loss of appetite are the most common symptoms of lung cancer in both men and women. In women, however, fatigue and shortness of breath usually come first.


In women, the most common symptom of lung cancer is fatigue. Because there are numerous causes of fatigue (and many women experience fatigue for multiple reasons on a daily basis), this symptom may not immediately indicate lung cancer.

However, cancer fatigue, or fatigue associated with cancer, is usually distinguished from ordinary tiredness. It's not the kind of tiredness that people can overcome with a good night's sleep or a cup of coffee. Some describe the sensation as "complete body tiredness."

Shortness of Breath/Exercise Intolerance

Shortness of breath is the second most common symptom of lung cancer in women. Shortness of breath is not always obvious in the early stages of the disease and can be easily dismissed as the result of something else or overlooked entirely.

Early on, symptoms are primarily associated with activity and may be observed only with more strenuous activity, such as stair climbing or sprinting.

Back or Shoulder Pain

Back or shoulder pain is a relatively common first symptom of lung cancer in women, and it can be caused by a variety of factors.

Metastases can weaken bones to the point where fractures (broken bones) occur with minimal trauma (pathologic fractures). Lung cancer that has spread to the adrenal glands (adrenal metastases) can cause back pain, which has been described as feeling like being kicked in the flank (the side of your body, between your ribs and hips).

Shoulder pain can be caused by metastases, but it can also be caused by nerve irritation caused by a tumor in the chest or tumors growing near the top of the lungs.

Recurrent Respiratory Infections

Recurrent respiratory infections are a common symptom of lung cancer in women, with many reporting multiple episodes of bronchitis or pneumonia prior to diagnosis.

Tumors that obstruct the airways are common in early-stage cancers. As cancer progresses, the frequency of respiratory infections rises. If a person has more than one episode of pneumonia in a year, it is recommended that they consult with their healthcare provider about a possible underlying problem.

Persistent Cough

The most common symptom of lung cancer is a persistent cough, but it is less common in women due to the location of these tumors. Having said that, many people report having a chronic, nagging cough at the time of diagnosis.

A cough caused by lung cancer may resemble coughs caused by viral infections, allergies, or a smoker's cough. It could be dry or produce sputum. It can be harsh and painful to the ribs, or it can be barely noticeable. It could be constant or intermittent.

Coughing Up Blood (Hemoptysis)

The most common symptom of underlying lung cancer is coughing up blood (hemoptysis). It is the only symptom for 7% of people when they are diagnosed. Nonetheless, it affects approximately 21% of people with lung cancer in general.

Other Symptoms of Metastatic Disease

Lung cancer has the potential to spread to the bones and adrenal gland, as well as the brain, liver, and lymph nodes. In some cases, metastasis symptoms are the only ones present at the time of diagnosis.

Headaches, new-onset seizures, speech or visual problems, numbness and weakness, or loss of coordination are all signs and symptoms of brain metastases.

Nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain or tenderness, a yellowish discoloration of the skin, and intense itching are all symptoms of liver metastases.

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