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7th October 2020

A pain that could be a sign of lung cancer

View all Early detection

Back pain is something we often blame on lifestyle or environmental factors. ‘My office chair isn’t quite right’, ‘I pulled my back lifting heavy shopping bags’ or, ‘I must have slept in an awkward position’. However, if you are experiencing back pain, it could be a sign of lung cancer.

Pain in the back, along with shoulder and neck pain, are all symptoms of lung cancer. Many people who are living with lung cancer will experience back pain at some point during their disease.

Our lungs are large, complex and vital organs that are protected by the rib cage. In some cases, lung cancer can inflame the lining of the lungs or, tumours can press on the spinal column causing pain in the back, shoulder, neck or side.

Often, we just accept back pain, but it can be debilitating having to deal with it every day. It is vital to get it checked out by your doctor to establish the real cause.

In most cases, your back pain won’t be caused by lung cancer but for some people like Heather, it was a symptom of her stage 4 lung cancer.

Heather was diagnosed with lung cancer back in December 2015 after having pain in her back for some time. She had tried painkillers, muscle relaxant medication and even had regular appointments with a chiropractor. However, the pain persisted, and she knew it needed to be investigated.

“The pain returned with a vengeance. I struggled to stand up, sit down, walk up and down stairs, or even carry my handbag!”

It got so bad I went to A&E. They did a chest x-ray which showed a shadow at the bottom of my right lung. I was advised it could be an infection – or a tumour. I was given antibiotics and had a follow up x-ray scheduled for two weeks later. My symptoms persisted and, when the shadow was still there on the next x-ray, they sent me for a CT scan.

The CT scan confirmed I had a lower lobe mass in my right lung, mediastinal lymphadenopathy and bone metastases on my spine and right femur. A subsequent MRI scan revealed impending spinal cord compression and I was immediately transferred for emergency radiotherapy.”

Get checked out

If you are experiencing unexplained back pain, it is important to monitor your symptoms – does it get worse when breathing in? Does the pain increase when laughing? These are all signs that something isn’t quite right and should be looked at by your GP.

The sooner that lung cancer is diagnosed, the more chance that life-lengthening treatments or in some cases, even curative surgery will be possible for you.

The NHS is still here and if you are concerned about any lung cancer symptoms you are experiencing, contact your doctor. Given the current covid-19 circumstances, many surgeries are providing telephone or video consultations and from there, your doctor can refer you on for further investigations – such as a chest x-ray.

Be aware of all the symptoms

Some people who are diagnosed with lung cancer like Heather may only experience back pain. Other people may have several other symptoms. Some people even have no symptoms.

As well as back pain, shoulder pain and neck pain, other signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Persistent cough for 3 weeks or more
  • Wheezing
  • Repeat chest infections
  • Breathlessness
  • Loss of appetite and/or unexplained weight loss
  • Coughing up blood or blood in your phlegm
  • Unexplained fatigue or lack of energy
  • Hoarseness
  • Finger clubbing
  • Swelling in the face or neck