Women are at equal risk for lung cancer as men, but they develop it differently and may have different symptoms. Men and women who smoke share the same risk factors for developing the most common types of lung cancer—non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). However, a woman’s symptoms may differ from those of a man due to where her tumor forms in her lungs and how it spreads.
Coughing up blood or rust-colored phlegm and wheezing are often the first sign of lung cancer in both men and women. These symptoms could also be caused by a number of other health conditions, but they should never be ignored. If you experience these symptoms, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
Another symptom of lung cancer is fatigue and the gradual onset of shortness of breath. These changes may be so subtle that a person may mistake them for normal aging or inactivity. This is especially true in women, where a slow and steady change in breathing can be harder to notice than in men.
Lung cancer can also cause fluid to build up in the space that surrounds your lungs in the chest cavity. This symptom, called pleural effusion, may be present even when you are not coughing. This is a serious condition that can lead to breathing problems and other complications including pneumonia and heart disease.
If your cancer is in the upper part of your lungs, it’s also possible to have arm/shoulder pain, especially if you are a non-smoker and/or older than 55. This symptom is caused by a tumor that is obstructing the airways, causing irritation to your lungs’ nerves, and/or affecting the blood vessels or ribs. A tumor that causes these effects is sometimes called a Pancoast tumor.
One of the less common symptoms is a tumor that forms in your adrenal glands. This cancer is usually seen in young people and is more commonly diagnosed in females than in males. If your cancer is in the adrenal glands, it can affect how much cortisol you produce, which can cause a range of health issues including bloating, back or abdominal pain, and numbness or tingling in your arms and legs.
Other symptoms of lung cancer include changes in your eyes or brain. If your cancer has spread to your brain, you may experience headaches or seizures. It can also spread to the bones, causing bone pain or a type of fracture that happens without injury (pathologic fracture).
Lung cancer often spreads to other parts of your body, and this is more common in women than in men. If the cancer spreads to your bones, it may cause back pain or a feeling that you have been kicked in the chest (bone metastases). In addition, some types of lung cancer—particularly adenocarcinoma—spread to your bones and adrenal glands early on. This can be particularly painful in women because adenocarcinoma tends to spread to the bones more quickly than it does in men.