How to Cope With Lung Cancer During an Emergency

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Newer treatments for lung cancer allow people to live longer, but some of the treatments have debilitating side effects. Further, living with the disease can be difficult because of several emergency complications.

Read on to learn more about possible emergency complications from lung cancer, how to prepare for them, and how to cope after the event.

Doctor helping male patient during lung cancer emergency crisis

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Types of Lung Cancer

There are two main types of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type, making up about 80%–85% of lung cancers. The main risk factor is current or former smoking.

Oncological Emergencies of Lung Cancer

Airway Obstruction

A significant number of people with lung cancer will develop obstruction of the airways.

Symptoms can include:

  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing when walking
  • Coughing up blood
  • Frequent lung infections

Treatment of an airway obstruction depends on the size of the tumor. Options include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and sometimes surgery.

Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

The superior vena cava is a primary vein that brings blood from the rest of the body to the heart. Lung cancer slowly compresses this vein, leading to superior vena cava syndrome.

Symptoms include:

  • Swelling and discoloration in the face and neck
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shoulder or chest pain

Treatment often includes radiation and chemotherapy to reduce the size of the cancerous lesion. Additionally, healthcare providers can place a stent inside the vein to hold it open.

Patients with superior vena cava syndrome typically have advanced lung cancer.

Acute Pulmonary Thromboembolism

All types of cancer increase a person's risk for blood clots in large veins and arteries, including the ones that are part of the lung. Pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung, is common in people with lung cancer.

Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations

It can be challenging to distinguish a pulmonary embolism from typical lung cancer symptoms. A person should be more suspicious of an acute pulmonary embolism if their symptoms suddenly change. Treatment usually includes anticoagulants.

Pericardial Tamponade

People with lung cancer can develop a pericardial effusion, which is fluid between the heart muscle and the sac that holds the heart. As the fluid builds up around the heart, people develop heart failure.

Pericardial tamponade is a life-threatening emergency in which so much fluid has accumulated that the heart can no longer pump blood to maintain adequate blood pressure.

Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Palpitations
  • Light-headedness
  • Low blood pressure

The problem is treated by placing a needle or a catheter into the area to drain the fluid in a procedure called pericardiocentesis. Unfortunately, once this complication has developed, the prognosis is poor.

Massive Hemoptysis

Hemoptysis is defined as coughing up blood.

People with lung cancer can have minor hemoptysis, but massive hemoptysis is an emergency. This bleeding occurs when lung cancer invades a blood vessel. It becomes an emergency as the blood can quickly fill up the lung.

Treatment starts with intubation, a procedure in which a patient has a tube inserted into the lungs and is placed on a ventilator. A bronchoscopy and other specialized procedures are performed to look for and stop the bleeding.

How Much Blood

Life-threatening bleeding from the lungs means about up to 2 pints over 24 hours. 

Spinal Cord Compression

Lung cancer can spread to other parts of the body, including the spinal cord, where it can compress the nerves. If the tumor grows large enough, patients develop paralysis.

Symptoms include:

  • New-onset back pain, particularly when lying down
  • Trouble moving the legs
  • Decreased sensation in the legs and lower body
  • Problems urinating

Spinal cord compression with significant neurological symptoms often requires surgery, but sometimes corticosteroid treatment or radiation therapy helps to reduce the size of the tumor and associated swelling.

Pleural Effusion

A pleural effusion is a buildup of fluid between the lung and the sac holding the lung.

Symptoms of pleural effusion include: 

  • Shortness of breath at rest
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Trouble taking a deep breath
  • Fever

Treating pleural effusion involves draining the area with a needle or catheter. Sometimes, a procedure called pleurodesis is required in people with malignant pleural effusion. During this procedure, a chemical is instilled into the chest cavity, preventing reaccumulation.

Other Emergencies

There are several other emergencies that lung cancer patients can develop, including:

  • Tumor lysis syndrome: When a large number of cancer cells die at once, releasing contents into the bloodstream
  • Hypercalcemia of malignancy: Abnormally high levels of calcium in the blood
  • Febrile neutropenia: Fever associated with a low number of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell
  • Hyperviscosity syndrome: Increased thickness and stickiness of blood

Speak with your healthcare provider about your risks for any of these complications.

How to Manage Emergency Situations

People with chronic, life-threatening illnesses like lung cancer should always be prepared for an emergency, such as a fire or hurricane. Here is how to be prepared.

Plan Ahead

People with lung cancer should speak to their healthcare provider about what to do in case of a natural disaster in their local area. People should consider if they need extra medication and what might happen if they miss certain treatments.

Make an Emergency Kit

It can be helpful to have emergency supplies on hand, like nutritious food and plenty of water. People with cancer are at higher risk for infections, so it is imperative to have hand sanitizer, face masks, and clean water available.

Carry Your Medical Information

Keep your medical information up-to-date and on hand. Include your healthcare provider's name and phone number. If you find yourself in another city or hospital, the new providers will not have access to your medical information unless you carry it with you. It is challenging for them to manage your disease effectively when they do not know your history.

Find Emergency Cancer Care

As soon as an emergency arises, call your provider to find out where to seek further care. It's best to have a backup plan in place should your clinic or hospital not be available to provide you care.

Living With Lung Cancer

Screening programs and effective new treatments mean people with lung cancer have higher life expectancies. One of the challenges for people with lung cancer is how to live with it. 

People with lung cancer need to obtain the most appropriate treatment. Special techniques called molecular testing help healthcare providers make decisions about specific treatments. This testing is essential to prolong life and avoid less effective treatments.

People with lung cancer should develop a cancer survivorship care plan. This includes a record of your cancer and treatment history and information about checkups and test results. A cancer survivorship care plan helps you and your healthcare providers understand your disease and progress.

Finally, you can stay as healthy as possible by doing the following:

  • Avoid tobacco and quit smoking.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Stay physically active and keep a healthy weight.
  • Stay up-to-date on regular health visits and immunizations.

Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis

Lung cancer not only affects your physical health but your emotional health too. These emotions are normal and are experienced differently in each individual.

Living with lung cancer can make a person feel:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Angry
  • Fearful
  • Anxious
  • Depressed
  • Lonely
  • Regretful

However, once a person accepts their cancer diagnosis, they can often feel a sense of hope and gratitude. People with lung cancer realize the importance of enjoying the little things in life and going to places they have never been before. They may spend more time with family and friends and mend broken relationships.

To further improve emotional health, it is vital that a person:

  • Expresses their feelings with friends and family, other cancer survivors, a support group, or a counselor
  • Looks for the positive and tries to be hopeful
  • Does not blame themselves for the cancer
  • Finds ways to relax through meditation, guided imagery, and relaxation exercises
  • Stays active
  • Looks for things they enjoy doing like hobbies or creative endeavors
  • Is involved in their care and makes lifestyle changes to create a sense of control


Lung cancer is a difficult diagnosis and can be complicated by other emergency conditions. Some of these emergency complications include airway obstruction, superior vena cava syndrome, acute pulmonary thromboembolism, pericardial tamponade, massive hemoptysis, spinal cord compression, and pleural effusion.

In addition, external emergencies, like fires or natural disasters, can make lung cancer care more challenging. It's essential to have a plan in place for emergency situations.

A Word From Verywell

Living with lung cancer can be scary. It takes a toll on your physical and emotional health. Prepare yourself for the different types of emergencies that can occur so you can manage your care in case of an emergency. Feel free to reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss your plans.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you improve your quality of life with lung cancer?

    The best way to improve a person’s quality of life with lung cancer is to focus on treatment, manage emotional health, and try to live a regular life. It is crucial to control disease symptoms and limit side effects from medicines. Lung cancer patients should meet with a counselor to address anxiety and depression. They should also have adequate social and spiritual support systems.

  • Is lung cancer curable?

    If lung cancer is diagnosed early (stage 1), it can be curable. However, most patients are diagnosed when the disease is advanced, which is difficult to cure. Still, newer treatments have extended the amount of time people live with lung cancer.

  • What are emergency signs that you should see a healthcare provider when you have lung cancer?

    People with lung cancer often have chronic cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. It is always important to speak with your provider about typical symptoms, but an emergency may be ongoing if your symptoms abruptly change.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Managing your cancer care during an emergency.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Living with lung cancer.

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By Christine Zink, MD
Dr. Christine Zink, MD, is a board-certified emergency medicine with expertise in the wilderness and global medicine. She completed her medical training at Weill Cornell Medical College and residency in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She utilizes 15-years of clinical experience in her medical writing.