If You Notice This on Your Face, Get Checked for Cancer

If this happens to you, talk to your doctor today.

Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer in both men and women, and the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Each year, over 230,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease, putting them at significant risk. However, experts say that early detection can make a real impact on one's chances of surviving lung cancer, so it's important to know the symptoms that signal a problem. In particular, there's one symptom which can affect your face, and if you notice it, it may be wise to request a cancer screening. Read on to find out which facial symptom can spell trouble, and which other symptoms suggest that cancer is the cause.

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If you notice facial swelling, it could be due to lung cancer.

doctor holding up an x ray of lungs

Swelling of the face, also known as facial edema, occurs when fluid builds up in the facial tissue, causing inflammation and puffiness. While it can have benign (non-cancerous) causes, it can sometimes be a symptom of lung cancer or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This is because lung tumors can obstruct blood flow in an important vein in the upper body known as the superior vena cava. This vein is tasked with carrying blood from your head, upper chest, neck, and arms to the heart. When it becomes blocked, it's known as superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS).

According to a 2018 case study, this syndrome is most often caused by cancer. "SVCS consists of symptoms and signs resulting from partial or complete obstruction of blood flow within the superior vena cava. Most cases are caused by underlying intrathoracic malignancy [meaning a cancerous tumor in the sternum, thoracic vertebrae, or ribs], of which up to 95 percent are due to lung cancer or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," the researchers write.

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Facial swelling can also have other causes.

Woman Talking to a Female Doctor

While SVCS is very often caused by lung cancer or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, you may develop facial swelling for reasons other than this syndrome. According to Healthline, facial swelling can also be explained by allergies, preeclampsia, angioedema, bacterial infection, injury, sinusitis, or a hormonal disturbance. You should always speak with your doctor if you experience facial swelling with no known cause.

And, if your face swells suddenly, you should always seek immediate medical care. That's because this can be a sign of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Other signs of anaphylaxis may include itchy skin, hives, low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, or rapid heart rate. Some people with anaphylaxis will also experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, or swelling in other body parts.

It can also be caused by other cancers if they have spread.

Closeup of doctor's hands while explaining to patient

While lung cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are the most common causes for SVCS, other cancer types can cause the syndrome if they have spread to the mediastinum. This is "the space in the chest between the lungs, breastbone and spine. It includes the heart, blood vessels, thymus, trachea, esophagus and lymph nodes," explains the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).

Breast cancer, germ cell tumors, esophageal cancer thymoma (a type of thymus cancer), mesothelioma, melanoma, thyroid cancer, leukemia, and Kaposi sarcoma are all types of cancer that can spread to the mediastinum.

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Here's how to recognize SVCS.

Young man coughing into a napkin

If the swelling in your face is in fact caused by superior vena cava syndrome, you may notice that the symptom worsens when you lay down for extended periods of time. This causes additional pressure on the superior vena cava, blocking blood flow and exacerbating the symptom. Similarly, your symptoms may worsen when you raise your arms over your head.

Some people with SVCS will notice additional symptoms, which may help corroborate the diagnosis. According to CCS, these symptoms may include shortness of breath, coughing (with or without producing blood), hoarseness, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, Horner's syndrome, headache, dizziness, swelling of the arms, or confusion.

Speak with your doctor if you experience facial swelling, especially if you have any additional symptoms or if you have a known cancer diagnosis.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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