Living with Lung Cancer
A diagnosis of lung cancer is shocking and frightening. It is helpful to have an idea about what to expect, how symptoms will be managed, and resources to turn to for help.
Lung cancer and its treatment can lead to other health problems. You may need comfort care to prevent or control these problems. The goal of comfort care is to prevent or treat as early as possible the symptoms of a disease, side effects caused by treatment of a disease, and psychological, social, and spiritual problems related to a disease or its treatment. Comfort care is sometimes called palliative care, supportive care, or symptom management.
Comfort care is available both during and after treatment. It can improve your quality of life. The following are some problems that may arise during and after lung cancer treatment. Your healthcare team can provide comfort care to help resolve or relieve these issues:
- Pain Your doctor or a pain control specialist can suggest ways to relieve or reduce pain.
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing People with lung cancer often have trouble breathing. Your doctor may refer you to a lung specialist or respiratory therapist. Some people are helped by oxygen therapy, photodynamic therapy, laser surgery, cryotherapy, or stents.
- Fluid in or around lungs Advanced cancer can cause fluid to collect in or around the lungs. The fluid can make it hard to breathe. Your healthcare team can remove fluid when it builds up. In some cases, a procedure can be done that may prevent fluid from building up again. Some people may need chest tubes to drain the fluid.
It’s normal to feel sad, anxious, or confused after a diagnosis of a serious illness.
- Pneumonia You may have chest X-rays to check for lung infections. Your doctor can treat infections.
- Cancer that spreads to the brain Lung cancer can spread to the brain. The symptoms may include headache, seizures, trouble walking, and problems with balance. Medicine to relieve swelling, radiation therapy, or sometimes surgery can help. People with small cell lung cancer may receive radiation therapy to the brain to try to prevent brain tumors from forming. This is called prophylactic cranial irradiation.
- Cancer that spreads to the bone Lung cancer that spreads to the bone can be painful and can weaken bones. You can ask for pain medicine, and the doctor may suggest external radiation therapy. Your doctor also may give you drugs to help lower your risk of breaking a bone.
- Sadness and other feelings It’s normal to feel sad, anxious, or confused after a diagnosis of a serious illness. Some people find it helpful to talk about their feelings.
It’s important for you to take care of yourself by eating well. You need the right amount of calories to maintain a good weight. You also need enough protein to keep up your strength. Eating well may help you feel better and have more energy. Sometimes, especially during or soon after treatment, you may not feel like eating. You may be uncomfortable or tired. You may find that foods don’t taste as good as they used to. In addition, the side effects of treatment (such as poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, or mouth sores) can make it hard to eat well. Your doctor, a registered dietitian, or another healthcare provider can suggest ways to deal with these problems.
You’ll need regular checkups after treatment for lung cancer. Even when there are no longer any signs of cancer, the disease sometimes returns because undetected cancer cells remained somewhere in your body after treatment. Regular checkups help ensure that any changes in your health are noted and treated if needed. Checkups may include a physical exam, blood tests, chest x-rays, CT scans, and bronchoscopy. If you have any health problems between checkups, contact your doctor.
Sources of Support
Learning you have lung cancer can change your life and the lives of those close to you. These changes can be hard to handle. It’s normal for you, your family, and your friends to have many different, and sometimes confusing, feelings.
You may worry about caring for your family, keeping your job, or continuing daily activities. Concerns about treatments and managing side effects, hospital stays, and medical bills are also common.
Because most people who get lung cancer were smokers, you may feel like doctors and other people assume that you are or were a smoker (even if you weren’t). You may feel as though you’re responsible for getting cancer (or that others blame you). It’s normal for anyone coping with a serious illness to feel fear, guilt, anger, or sadness. It may help to share your feelings with family, friends, a member of your healthcare team, or another person with cancer.
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Source: National Cancer Institute
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2010.