Cancer is a horrible beast, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been affected by it in some way. Lung cancer, in particular, is one of the worst cancers out there. It’s one of the most common cancers—the second most common cancers in men and women, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s also one of the most deadly cancers: 131,880 adults died from lung cancer in 2021.
Part of the reason lung cancer is so deadly is that it’s often in an advanced state before symptoms emerge. Not only that, but often, the symptoms of lung cancer don’t even involve the lungs, which can make it harder to detect and diagnose. In fact, there’s a type of lung tumor called a Pancoast tumor that very rarely causes symptoms in the lungs. Its symptoms involve your shoulders, arms, hands, face, and eyes.
Yes, you can get lung cancer symptoms in your extremities, eyes, and face. That’s scary AF. But knowledge is power, and knowing what the symptoms are—and when to go to your doctor for further tests—could save your life, or the life of someone you love.
What To Know About Pancoast Tumors
According to WebMd, Pancoast tumors are usually a type of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). They form at the top of one your lungs, and are likely to invade the surrounding tissue. Instead of directly affecting your lung tissue, they often involve your chest wall, and can spread to your lymph nodes, spine, ribs, and nerves.
Like other lung cancers, Pancoast tumors can be caused by smoking, secondary smoke, asbestos exposure, and exposure to industrial chemicals. It’s because of the way that they can affect your nerves and spine that they end up causing all kinds of weird, non-lung specific symptoms.
The Strange Ways Pancoast Tumors Affect Your Body
WebMd explains that the first symptoms of a Pancoast tumor often involve your shoulders and shoulder blades. You may experience pain in those areas. Often, the pain spreads down your arms, all the way to the ends of your fingers. The pain can be intense, and some people will end up needing strong pain medication to manage it.
Besides pain, you might experience other nerve-related symptoms such as muscle weakness, tingling sensations, or a “creepy crawly” skin feeling.
How Pancoast Tumors Affect Your Face And Eyes
Probably the most unsettling and random-seeming ways that Pancoast tumors can affect you involve your face and eyes. When the tumors affect the nerves that control your eyes and face, you will experience a syndrome called Horner syndrome.
As the American Cancer Society describes it, Horner syndrome may involve a drooping of one of your upper eyelids, or a weakness in that eyelid. You may also notice that the pupil in the affected eyes has decreased in size, as compared to your other eye. Finally, you may experience decreased sweating on that side of your face. You may also experience no sweating at all on that side.
The Mayo Clinic shares some additional symptoms of Horner syndrome, including a sunken appearance to your eye, little or no pupil dilation, and sometimes a very small elevation of your low eyelid.
As the Mayo Clinic points out, Horner syndrome can be caused by several medical issues, not just lung cancer. These may include a stroke, spinal cord injury, or another type of tumor. Horner syndrome is addressed by zeroing in on what underlying medical issue is causing your ocular and facial symptoms. Once that’s solved, your symptoms should decrease.
What To Do If You Have Any Of These Symptoms
I don’t know about you, but when any little thing is wrong with my body, I tend to freak out. I actually have some particular hang-ups about my eyes. I’ve dealt with ocular migraines for years, so I often get a little extra anxious when something goes wrong with my eyes or my vision. I think it’s also a human instinct to be protective of our eyes!
The bottom line is that if anything strange or unusual is happening with your health, or the health of someone you love, you should take it seriously. Don’t just freak out: get medical attention.
I’ll be honest. Before writing and researching for this article, I had no idea that shoulder pain and weird eye stuff could be a symptom of something as serious as lung cancer. I personally don’t have any risks for lung cancer, but if I did, or if there was someone in my life who was at risk, I would keep this all in mind, and not be afraid to reach out to a doctor if any of these symptoms came up.
Even if you aren’t at risk for lung cancer, lung cancer is an insidious disease and can affect anyone. If you have any of these symptoms, and aren’t sure what to do, please discuss them with your doctor ASAP. Chances are these symptoms aren’t caused by lung cancer, and are something that’s easily treated.
But if they are lung cancer, or something equally serious, you will be glad you investigated. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.