24th November 2020

Never ignore that twinge in your back

View all Early detection

Many of us will experience pain in our back at some time. It can be easy to dismiss such aches and pains as simply being part of growing older – but don’t ignore it because, while that twinge might be caused from lifting something heavy, it can also be a symptom of lung cancer.

Not many people would associate back or shoulder pain as a symptom of lung cancer but, as we near the end of November (Lung Cancer Awareness Month) it’s a timely reminder that many signs and symptoms of lung cancer are not always the most obvious.

How is back pain a symptom of lung cancer?

Spinal cord compression: Lung cancer tumours can put pressure on the spine, leading to pain in your neck or upper, middle, or lower back. The pain may also spread to your arms, buttocks, or legs. Your back or neck may feel numb, weak, or stiff.

Metastasis: The inner layer of cells and tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord is called the leptomeninges. If your cancer cells spread to this area or get into the spinal fluid, it can cause back pain and other problems, such as headaches and weakness in your arms and legs.

High calcium levels: Lung cancer that spreads to the bones can cause calcium levels in your blood to go up. This is called hypercalcemia, and can cause back pain as well as symptoms like nausea, vomiting, thirst, weakness, and headaches.

So, if you are experiencing pain in your back, shoulders or neck, or your side – speak to your doctor.

They may recommend tests that might include:

  • X-ray
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • PET scan

Lizzi Brazier experienced pain in her back which led to her being diagnosed with lung cancer, although the process was far from straightforward. A fit and active mother and grandmother, she was making plans to buy a property abroad as a holiday home to be used by the whole family. 

‘’We went house-hunting to Spain in February last year. We were away for week, and on the evening we came back, I had a really bad back pain. I just basically medicated it for several days, at which point my husband went, ‘You need to go and see somebody’, because it wasn’t getting any better. It was just like a dull sort of painful ache in my lower back. 

I was originally diagnosed with muscular pain, which they treated, but that didn’t do anything. Then they thought it might be a kidney infection, because it was still painful in my lower back. I then had an X-ray, and they noticed fluid around my lung and a possible shadow.”

Lizzi went on to be diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2019. She is now being treated with the targeted therapy, osimertinib, which has had a significant impact on her symptoms, including the back pain.

‘’I take one tiny little tablet every day at five o’clock, which is a bit weird, but the nurse did say that whatever time we start, you need to stick to this from now on. It’s enough to produce amazing results for me.”  

The NHS is still here for us all

Back or shoulder pain can indicate that the lung cancer has spread but this should not stop you from going to the doctor. Because of Covid-19, many people have felt they can’t go out to see their doctor or think they might be a burden at a time when the NHS is under strain, especially for something like back pain that can be easily explained away.

However, if you are experiencing back or shoulder pain, you should contact your GP, even if you live in an area that is in lockdown or tier 3.

Know all the symptoms

There are many symptoms of lung cancer and some people, like Lizzi, may experience several symptoms, others may have just one. As well as back and shoulder pain, signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • A persistent cough that lasts three weeks or more
  • Finger clubbing
  • Breathlessness
  • Wheezing
  • Frequent chest infections
  • A cough that changes or gets worse
  • Chest and/or shoulder pain
  • Coughing up blood or blood in your phlegm
  • Unexplained fatigue or lack of energy
  • Hoarseness
  • Clubbed fingers
  • Swelling in the face or neck.

If you are experiencing any of these potential symptoms of lung cancer – it is vital that you speak to your doctor. The earlier lung cancer is diagnosed, the better options you may have.