Each and every cell in the body needs oxygen to live, making healthy lungs indispensable for our survival. That’s why respiratory and lung conditions are a leading cause of death and disability, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). One recent report from that organization laid bare the devastating effects of respiratory illness: Annually, 3 million people die from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), more than 1.6 million die from lung cancer, 1.4 die from tuberculosis, and pneumonia remains a leading cause of death among children under five years old.

Unfortunately, lung conditions often fly under the radar long enough to cause serious damage to the respiratory system. That’s why it’s all the more important to recognize the lesser known symptoms of lung disease—like one that you may notice when you stand, which can mean a serious emergency. Read on to find out what to look out for.

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According to Rocky Mountain Cancer Center (RMCC), Colorado’s largest provider of cancer care, having problems with balance can be a sign of lung cancer and related conditions. That’s because cancer can cause Superior Vena Cava Syndrome (SVCS), a condition that affects a major vein in the upper body. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) says that SVCS is most common among patients with “lung cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or cancer that spreads to the chest.”

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The RMCC explains that cancer of the lungs can cause SVCS for a few reasons. Most commonly, “a tumor may be located near the superior vena cava (SVC), a large vein that takes blood from your head and arms back to the heart,” their experts say. “As the tumor grows, it can cause the blood to back up in this vein and cause dizziness or balance loss,” they add.

In other cases, a tumor may grow directly on the superior vena cava or cause a clot within the vein. If cancer has spread widely and begun affecting the lymph nodes, this can also press on the vena cava vein, triggering balance issues.

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The ASCO warns that symptoms of Superior Vena Cava Syndrome usually develop slowly over time, and may be subtle. Besides balance problems, you should look out for “swelling of your face, neck, upper body, and arms,” difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, and coughing. Less frequently, patients may experience chest pain, a hoarse voice, and difficulty speaking or swallowing.

If you experience any of these symptoms—especially if you have a known lung condition—call your doctor for immediate care.

Developing SVCS is considered a serious oncologic emergency, and should be met with urgent intervention. The ASCO says that in response to an SVCS diagnosis, your medical team may recommend corticosteroids to decrease inflammation and swelling, diuretics to lower fluid retention and release pressure on the vena cava vein, or medication to treat blood clots. In some cases, surgery may be required, or your doctor may place a stent in the vein—a small tube which allows blood to flow more freely again.

The organization also notes that your doctor may determine that you do not in fact need immediate treatment if your symptoms are not causing any serious problems. Speak with your doctor for more information if you suspect your lungs are in poor health.

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