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7 Lung Cancer Symptoms That Affect Skin

Medically reviewed by Richard LoCicero, M.D.
Posted on April 16, 2024

Lung cancer commonly causes chest pain and a wet cough that may produce blood, but it can also change the way your skin looks and feels. Unusual skin changes can be related to symptoms of lung cancer progression or side effects of lung cancer treatment.

Here are seven ways that lung cancer may affect your skin.

1. Radiation ‘Burns’

Radiation therapy can be highly effective at targeting lung cancer cells. Unfortunately, it can also have sunburnlike effects. Radiation can leave the skin sore, with painful, discolored areas. Similar to a sunburn, a radiation burn can cause itchy skin that peels and blisters.

Skin near the treatment area may be damaged by radiation. In some cases, the exit site (where radiation leaves the other side of the body) is also affected. Areas where skin rubs together, like under the breast or armpits, are more likely to react to radiation.

Radiation can damage skin near the treatment area, causing pain and discoloration similar to a sunburn. (Medical Images)

Treating your skin with care during radiation therapy can help protect it. Some basic tips include:

  • Avoid perfume and skin care products with fragrance.
  • Skip shaving and waxing.
  • Stay out of the sun, and wear protective clothing and high-SPF sunscreen.
  • Wash gently with soap and water without scrubbing.
  • Wear loose clothing made from soft, natural fibers.

Radiation’s uncomfortable effects on the skin should clear up within a few weeks of completing your treatment course. However, your skin’s appearance may be affected long term. For instance, some people notice that the radiated skin remains darker than the surrounding skin. Others develop areas of small, broken blood vessels. Once you’re fully healed from radiation, your dermatologist may be able to suggest ways to improve how these areas look if you find them bothersome.

2. Rashes From Targeted Therapy and Immunotherapy

Itchy, dry skin is among the most common side effects of several targeted treatments and immunotherapies for lung cancer. Scratching for relief can lead to flaking and rashes. These medications may also cause mouth sores and changes to hair and nails. Some people also develop rashes that look like acne.

Immunotherapy drugs can attack healthy cells along with cancer cells, causing side effects such as an itchy rash and discolored skin. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Applying topical creams and moisturizers with anti-itch properties to your skin may be enough to reduce dryness. Be sure to check with your doctor before treating your skin at home. Skin care products for acne that contain retinoids or alcohol may be too drying and further irritate your skin. If your side effects are severe, your oncologist may suggest changing your medication type or dosage.

3. Lesions From Spread of Lung Cancer

The spread of lung cancer into the lymph nodes and other parts of the body is known as metastasis. In rare cases, lung cancer cells can metastasize to the skin. This most often affects upper parts of the body, such as the abdomen, neck, and chest, but also can show up in other areas. Men are more likely than women to develop skin metastases from lung cancer, according to a study in the journal Case Reports in Oncology.

If they develop, skin lesions usually show up an average of 5.7 months after lung cancer diagnosis, but they’re sometimes found at the same time as lung cancer. These growths vary widely in how they look.

Rarely, skin lesions may be the first sign of lung cancer, as they were for this person described in a study in the journal BMC Research Notes. (CC BY-SA 4.0/Pajaziti L. et al.)

For instance, there have been case reports of people developing a cancerous ulcer on the hand or a large, discolored, tender spot on the back of the shoulder. It’s unusual for lung cancer to spread to skin in this area, so the lesions may be a sign of lung cancer that’s highly aggressive.

4. Plaques, Blisters, or Nodules

A small percentage of people with lung cancer develop immune system reactions called paraneoplastic syndromes. Symptoms can affect various parts of the body and may develop before or after lung cancer is diagnosed.

Potential skin-related effects of paraneoplastic syndromes include:

  • Dermatomyositis — Rashes on specific areas and muscle weakness or tenderness
  • Leukocytoclastic vasculitis — Firm, raised plaques on the legs or skin discoloration
  • Paraneoplastic pemphigus — An outbreak of blisters on the trunk, soles of the feet, and palms of the hands
  • Sweet syndrome — Painful plaques and nodules that come with a fever

With such a wide range of possible signs and symptoms, only your doctor can determine if your skin changes are related to paraneoplastic syndrome.

5. Yellowing of Skin

If lung cancer spreads to a person’s liver and blocks their bile ducts, they can develop a yellowish tint to the whites of their eyes and their skin, known as jaundice. Bile is a bright yellow substance your body produces as part of the digestive system. It contains a compound called bilirubin.

Normally, bile circulates between the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas through bile ducts. But if lung cancer metastases obstruct or impair any of these organs, this process gets disrupted. The resulting buildup of bilirubin gives the body a yellowish hue.

6. Flushing

Chest tumors can cause a condition called second-order Horner’s syndrome. This happens when a lung tumor blocks or damages nerves running from the chest to the top of the lungs and along the carotid artery.

These nerves are responsible for involuntary functions, like perspiration and the contraction of the eye pupils. People with Horner’s syndrome can’t sweat, so their skin becomes flushed easily. Another common symptom is drooping of the upper eyelids. Usually, Horner syndrome symptoms affect just one side of the face.

7. Easy Bruising

Certain types of lung cancer tumors can affect the adrenal glands and increase the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol levels are too high, people develop a hormonal imbalance called Cushing’s syndrome. One of the symptoms is skin that bruises easily.

Thinner skin that bruises easily is among the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Cushing’s is considered a type of paraneoplastic syndrome associated with both small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). People with Cushing’s can develop a host of issues, including high blood sugar and insomnia.

Researchers have noted that those who get Cushing’s after lung cancer often have muscle weakness and an imbalance of electrolytes (essential minerals like sodium, calcium, and potassium).

What To Do About Skin Symptoms

Be sure to let your cancer care team know about any new or worsening symptoms. They can identify the cause and recommend the most appropriate treatment options.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLungCancerTeam is the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones. On MyLungCancerTeam, more than 12,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Have you noticed changes in your skin since being diagnosed with lung cancer? Did you discuss these changes with your doctor? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on April 16, 2024
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Richard LoCicero, M.D. has a private practice specializing in hematology and medical oncology at the Longstreet Clinic Cancer Center, in Gainesville, Georgia. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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