This Facial Change Could Be a Sign of Lung Cancer, According to Pulmonologists

Woman looking at facial changes in the mirror

The World Health Organization counts lung cancer among the leading causes of cancer-related deaths globally. Not smoking is the first-line advice for preventing lung cancer, but everyone should be aware of other risk factors and signs too.

"Lung cancer is not limited to smokers only," says Dr. Sandeep Gupta, MD, a pulmonologist with Memorial Hermann.

Yes, the World Health Organization cited smoking as the leading cause in 85% of lung cancer cases, but that still leaves 15% of cases with other triggers. As scary as that sounds, knowledge is power.

"Knowing the signs of lung cancer is important because catching it early gives you better chances of beating it," says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, MD, the chief medical advisor for Fortune Recommends Health.

Sometimes, noticing these signs is impossible.

"Unfortunately, patients newly diagnosed with lung cancer often have no symptoms at all," says Dr. Jimmy Johannes, MD, a board-certified internist, pulmonologist and critical care medicine specialist at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center.

However, that's not always the case, and one sign of lung cancer may be visible when you look in the mirror. Pulmonologists explained what it is, why it happens and what to do if you notice it.

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This Facial Change Could Be a Sign of Lung Cancer, According to Pulmonologists

Facial drooping (often combined with not sweating on one side of your face) can be a sign of lung cancer. "These symptoms can reflect a lesion or mass in the top part, or the apex, of the lung," Dr. Johannes says.

The top part of the lungs matters as much as the rest of the organs. "The upper lung has the same function as the rest of the lung," he continues. "It is also involved in gas exchange, to get oxygen into the blood and to remove carbon dioxide from the blood, just like the rest of the lung."

Clinically, facial drooping and any associated lack of perspiration can signify Horner's syndrome.

Dr. Johannes explains that some nerves that supply nerves to the face and eye originate in the spinal cord, near the lower neck and upper chest. The nerves run up and near the top part of the lung. "A tumor in the top part of the lung can involve these nerves, which results in neurologic symptoms," he says.

Dr. Gupta adds that people with Horner’s syndrome may also have shoulder and neck pain.

Related: The #1 Mini-Stroke Symptom Most People Miss, According to a Cleveland Clinic Neurologist

Is Facial Drooping Always a Lung Cancer Sign?

No, but it should prompt a trip to the emergency room ASAP. "Other lesions that can affect the same set of nerves, from the brain all the way to the neck, can cause the same set of symptoms, such as a stroke, trauma to the base of the skull or the spine at the level of the neck, an aneurysm or dissection of the thoracic aorta or the carotid artery, among other things," Dr. Johannes says.

In these instances, quick care can be life-changing and saving. "Time's very important with strokes, so don’t delay getting medical help," Dr. Dasgupta stresses.

Dr. Dasgupta adds that facial drooping can also be a sign of Bell's palsy, which isn't fatal. "Bell's palsy...affects the facial muscles and can make one side of the face to droop," he says.

Other Signs of Lung Cancer You Shouldn't Ignore

Facial drooping isn't the only potential red flag of lung cancer. "Lung cancer can manifest with cough, bloody sputum, weight loss, chest wall pain and shortness of breath," Dr. Johannes says. "Often, lung cancer doesn't cause any symptoms until it is advanced."

While true, it's unfortunate because the five-year survival rate is way better when lung cancer is diagnosed at an early stage (63%) than a later one (8%), according to the American Lung Association. Only about 27% of lung cancer cases get diagnosed at these early stages. However, American Lung Association data shows early detection is rising, up 9% in the last five years.

"If there is concern for lung cancer, I recommend seeking medical attention to evaluate you and your risk of lung cancer." Dr. Johannes says. "The signs and symptoms that can suggest lung cancer are often explained by other conditions or factors, and lung cancer may be a less likely reason for the symptoms. Nevertheless, if the suspicion is high enough, a chest X-ray and a CT scan of the chest may be needed."

According to Dr. Gupta, lung cancer is generally treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these.

Related: This Is the Early Heart Attack Symptom That's Missed the Most Often, According to Cardiologists

How to Lower Your Lung Cancer Risk

The number one way to snuff out (or lower) your chances of lung cancer? You probably guessed it. "Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke, and quit smoking if you already do," Dr. Dasgupta says.

Still, nonsmokers and those with little secondhand exposure can also develop lung cancer. You can feel empowered to take other steps to decrease lung cancer odds.

"Try to minimize your exposure to radon gas, asbestos or other carcinogens, eat well, exercise regularly and stay at a healthy weight," Dr. Dasgupta recommends.

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