People with small cell lung cancer (SCLC) may develop hyperpigmentation. This skin change is typically harmless, but people may choose to reduce its appearance with procedures such as laser therapy and retinoids.

SCLC makes up around 15% of lung cancers diagnosed in the United States. In this condition, smaller neuroendocrine cells within the lungs begin to grow in an uncontrolled fashion.

SCLC can lead to ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) syndrome, which, in turn, can cause hyperpigmentation, a condition in which part or all of the skin becomes darker.

This article explains this link and describes the treatment options available, when to seek medical advice, and the potential outlook for people with SCLC and hyperpigmentation.

A person with SCLC undergoing laser treatment for hyperpigmentation on their cheek.-1Share on Pinterest
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SCLC can cause changes in ACTH, a hormone that regulates the production of other hormones, including cortisol and stress hormones. This may lead to conditions such as ectopic ACTH syndrome.

Ectopic describes when something occurs in an abnormal place. ACTH typically comes from the pituitary gland. However, ectopic ACTH syndrome occurs when cells outside the pituitary gland produce ACTH in large quantities.

Changes in ACTH, such as those caused by ectopic ACTH syndrome, can cause hyperpigmentation.

A 2019 article also suggests that ectopic ACTH secretion that occurs alongside SCLC may lead to a worse prognosis. A person should speak with their doctor if they notice new symptoms, such as hyperpigmentation.

Other potential causes of hyperpigmentation

According to the National Cancer Institute, other potential causes of hyperpigmentation can include:

There is no reliable and recent scientific data concerning the incidence of hyperpigmentation in people with lung cancer.

Researchers in a 2019 article estimate that up to 30% of people with SCLC may develop ectopic ACTH production. This syndrome may cause hyperpigmentation. However, it is not a guaranteed symptom.

Treatment for hyperpigmentation is not necessary if a doctor has confirmed it is harmless. Though, some people may still choose to remove it if they do not like the appearance.

Some potential methods to manage hyperpigmentation include:

  • retinoids, which scientists produce from vitamin A
  • azelaic acid, a naturally occurring acid
  • hydroquinone, a chemical that can bleach the skin
  • chemical peels, which use a variety of acids to remove layers of skin
  • laser therapy, which uses intense beams of light to even out skin tone

Since ectopic ACTH secretion may lead to a worse prognosis for SCLC, anyone who observes recent changes to their skin should contact a doctor.

Additionally, if an individual has any signs of SCLC, they should seek their doctor’s advice. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), this can include:

  • a worsening or chronic cough
  • chest pain, which may worsen with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing up blood
  • coughing up rust-colored spit or phlegm
  • hoarseness
  • appetite loss
  • weight loss
  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • chronic or recurrent chest infections
  • wheezing

Lung cancer can also spread to other organs, where it may cause a different set of symptoms. People with SCLC should speak with their doctor if they notice any new developments.

SCLC is a serious condition. According to the ACS, the 5-year survival rate for this condition is 30% when the cancer is still within the lungs. However, once it has spread to distant organs or lymph nodes, that figure is 3%.

Ectopic ACTH secretion may cause hyperpigmentation in people with SCLC. These skin changes can make some people feel self-conscious or depressed.

People can speak with a healthcare professional to manage and treat hyperpigmentation if it affects their quality of life.

SCLC occurs when smaller lung cells begin to grow out of control. It can cause a variety of symptoms, most notably affecting the lungs. For instance, some people with SCLC experience a bloody cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

Having SCLC can lead to ectopic ACTH syndrome. This is when cells that should not produce the ACTH hormone begin to do so in large volumes. One potential symptom of ectopic ACTH syndrome is hyperpigmentation.

Hyperpigmentation by itself does not cause SCLC to be more aggressive. However, other endocrine problems related to ectopic ACTH syndrome can lead to worse overall outcomes.

Some people may find it hard living with hyperpigmentation. Treatments, including chemical peels and laser therapy, can reduce this skin change.