Living with Lung Cancer
You have just been diagnosed with lung cancer. The first thing you must know, and something you should repeat to yourself over and over, is there is reason for hope! Much is being done for people with lung cancer, and new treatments are being developed and tested every day. Of course, you will experience many strong emotions – it is part of the process of dealing with your diagnosis. But a key part of living with lung cancer is to learn the facts, to stay positive, to be hopeful, and to remember that lung cancer can often be treated. There isn’t one best or easiest way to live with a diagnosis of lung cancer. The following are some suggestions for ways you can live with your diagnosis and treatment.
Get a second opinion (or a third or fourth). Arm yourself with knowledge of all of your options. If you do not get a recommendation from your doctor for where to get a second opinion, consider going to a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. These centers are ideally suited to provide you with the treatment you need. The experts you consult may all tell you the same thing, or they may suggest new options or clinical trials you may want to consider. You should start treatment with the confidence that you have made the best decision you can.
Become your own best advocate. Talk with your doctors and nurses. Ask questions. Ask them to repeat what you don’t understand. Repeat back to them what you think you heard and ask them to confirm that you understood. Be active in your care and choices. Use a notebook to keep track of questions you have and information about your health and disease, such as your latest test results, medical reports, and notes. Bring a family member or friend with you to all appointments so that you can make sure they heard the same information you did.
Don’t let anyone steal your hope. There is much that even the experts don’t understand about lung cancer, especially how each person will respond to treatment. Forget or ignore the statistics. They tell you nothing about what is going to happen to you. Find doctors who share your hope for survival and are willing to fight right along with you.
Make healthy lifestyle changes. Life will change after any cancer diagnosis, and living with lung cancer can be difficult. There are things you can do to help you deal with the changes in your life. If your energy level is affected, plan rest periods as you need them. Know what causes you to become short of breath or experience other symptoms. Walking may be okay, but walking up hill may be too tiring. If you are undergoing chemotherapy treatments, ask your doctor when you are likely to have low blood counts and when they are likely to recover. Plan lighter activities on days when your blood counts are lower.
It’s normal to be worried, fearful, sad, or anxious.
Living with any serious illness causes mental exhaustion. It’s normal to be worried, fearful, sad, or anxious. You may want to ask for counseling or other help to deal with these feelings. You may have trouble sleeping. Ask your doctor for help if you experience long-term sadness or sleeplessness.
Take care of yourself. Your body is undergoing a battle. Arm it with what it needs to be successful. Eat well, drink plenty of water, exercise when you are able, and get enough rest, both at nighttime and during the day. Your cancer or your treatment may affect your ability to be intimate. Talk about this with your partner, and if necessary, your doctor and/or a counselor. Take time to just be together.
Your Family and Friends
Although you are the one with a diagnosis of lung cancer, your family and other loved ones are experiencing it with you. They are dealing with their own sadness, fears, and worries. One way for them to handle their feelings is to try to take care of you. If possible, allow them to help you. It is part of their healing process as well as yours. When it comes to family and friends, be sure to surround yourself with positive and encouraging people, take someone to doctor visits with you to help listen or take notes, and accept offers for help. When people ask, “What can I do?” it is because they truly want to “do” something. Allow them the pleasure and privilege of helping you. You will be helping them through this hard time, too.
For the Young Person with Lung
Most people with lung cancer are over age sixty. However, a large number of young people, even those under 40, are diagnosed with this disease. If you haven’t started or completed your family and it’s important to you, be sure to talk with your doctor before you start treatment about options for preserving your ability to have children in the future.
Support groups offer a chance to talk with others going through situations similar to yours. Yet, many people with lung cancer are not comfortable seeking out these groups. Some people actually feel guilty about a diagnosis of lung cancer: if you have smoked, you may feel that it is your own “fault” that you got lung cancer. These negative feelings make support groups especially important for you. You must recognize that no one deserves lung cancer. Support groups also can help your family and loved ones who are affected by your illness.
You may find that in the beginning you come to a group to seek encouragement and hope but that later you are the one to offer that same encouragement and hope to someone else. Many kinds of support are available.
Even if there is no sign of lung cancer after your treatment is completed, the fear of the cancer returning is often on the mind of survivors. You may find yourself dealing with treatment side effects, or you may feel the loss of the attention of your medical team and support groups. This is a time that can be difficult: feelings of depression are not unusual. Many people continue to find comfort from support groups even after their treatment has ended. Also, these groups allow you to share your experiences with those who are facing what you have already gone through, which can be rewarding.
Once your treatment is over, it is also important that you receive regular follow-up care. Visit your doctor as prescribed to monitor for any return of cancer. The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends that you have follow-up appointments with your specialist every three months during the first two years after treatment, every six months during years three through five, and yearly after that. You should feel free to schedule more frequent appointments if you are experiencing symptoms that worry you or have other healthcare concerns. Ask your physician what symptoms you should be on the lookout for. Report them promptly should they occur.
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Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2007 National Lung Cancer Partnership, www.nationallungcancerpartnership.org.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2007.