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Woman in yellow shirt speaking to audience about Pancoast Tumor Symptoms

A Pancoast tumor is a rare type of lung cancer that can be distinguished from other lung tumors by its unique location. Specifically, Pancoast tumors develop in the uppermost portion of the lung (apex) above the first rib in the chest (thoracic rib). If left untreated, the tumor can potentially spread into the thoracic ribs and affect critical structures at the base of the neck, such as nerves and blood vessels. 

Also known as superior pulmonary sulcus tumors, Pancoast tumors account for less than 5% of lung cancer cases. The condition is named for Henry Pancoast, MD, the radiologist who first described it in the early 1900s.

Pancoast tumor causes

Like all cancers, Pancoast tumors develop when healthy cells undergo harmful changes that damage their DNA. A carrier of genetic information, DNA provides vital instructions for cell proliferation. Damaged DNA can deliver faulty instructions that cause the cells to grow and divide very rapidly. The excess abnormal cells then build up, bind together and form tumors.

Scientists do not yet fully understand the causes of Pancoast tumors. However, like other lung cancers, these relatively uncommon tumors have been conclusively linked to smoking and other forms of tobacco use.

Pancoast tumor risk factors

In addition to tobacco use, researchers have identified certain factors that can increase the risk of Pancoast tumors. These include exposure to known cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), such as:

  • Secondhand tobacco smoke
  • Asbestos
  • Diesel exhaust
  • Nickel
  • Gold

Exposure to any of these carcinogens can cause a unique biological response in the body that disrupts the normally orderly cell reproduction process in the lungs. Specifically, a carcinogen can trigger slight genetic changes in lung tissue cells that cause the cells to replicate at a highly accelerated rate. Then, a small cluster of abnormal cells may form and gradually develop into a Pancoast tumor.

In general, the risk of developing a Pancoast tumor increases with the dose and frequency of the carcinogen exposure. However, it is important to note that many people who are exposed to these and other carcinogens never become ill or develop cancer. Likewise, some people develop Pancoast tumors without being exposed to any known carcinogens. As such, possible Pancoast tumor symptoms, such as shoulder pain with arm weakness (similar to a pinched nerve), should be promptly discussed with a physician.

Pancoast tumor prevention

Some Pancoast tumor risk factors, such as tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke, can be controlled. Therefore, one of the most effective preventive measures is to avoid smoking and secondhand smoke.

Additionally, workers in certain industries, such as mining and shipbuilding, may be exposed to carcinogens in their work environment. For instance, before federal regulations were enacted in the 1970s, many industrial workers handled raw asbestos or asbestos-containing materials while performing their job duties.

To keep their employees safe, it is important for employers to assess the risk of carcinogen exposure in the workplace and to take preventive steps that account for all possible means of exposure, such as skin contact and the storage of chemicals and waste. This may include providing employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) and on-site hand hygiene and washing stations.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

The renowned team in the Thoracic Oncology Program at Moffitt offers the latest diagnostic and treatment options for all types of lung cancer, including rare and complex malignancies like Pancoast tumors. As a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Moffitt is nationally recognized for its groundbreaking research. We also take a bench-to-bedside approach, quickly translating our notable discoveries into tangible benefits for our patients. 

If you would like to learn more about Pancoast tumor causes and risk factors, you can request an appointment with a lung cancer specialist at Moffitt by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.