Managing Lung Cancer Symptoms

Oxygen therapy

How can you manage your lung cancer symptoms? Receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer can be terrifying. Underlying that fear lie questions not only about the prognosis but also about the possible symptoms ahead. Will I have pain? Will I feel like I am suffocating? Thankfully, we have come a long way in managing the symptoms that accompany lung cancer, and excellent relief for most of these symptoms is available.

Pain Management

A wide range of medications and alternative treatments are available to manage the pain associated with lung cancer. Communicating your level of pain with your oncologist will help ensure he or she chooses the best medications to treat your pain without making you overly tired or groggy. Healthcare professionals often ask about pain using a scale of 1 to 10. Becoming familiar with this “pain scale” can help you share somewhat objectively the level of pain you are experiencing.

  • Pain Free (0): completely pain-free
  • Mild Pain (1–3): pain is tolerable and does not interfere with normal activities
  • Moderate Pain (4–6): pain is described as distressful and interferes significantly with normal activities
  • Severe Pain (7–10): pain is disabling and interferes completely with normal activities. A pain level of 10 would be described as “the worst pain ever.”

Management of Breathing Difficulties

Depending upon the cause of shortness of breath, many options are available for alleviating discomfort. When evaluating your symptoms your oncologist may do a few tests to get an objective measure of your breathing. Most commonly, he or she will obtain an oximetry reading, that is, a number that reflects how much oxygen is in your blood, and therefore, how well your lungs are functioning to bring oxygen to your body. He or she then may recommend:

  • Oxygen Therapy: oxygen therapy can be arranged in your home as well as in the hospital
  • Medications: depending on the underlying cause, medications may be used to treat pneumonia, wheezing, fluid build up in the lungs, anxiety, etc.
  • Complementary therapies: techniques such as relaxation may help with symptoms of shortness of breath
  • Chemotherapy or radiation: if the tumor size is contributing to breathing difficulty, these are sometimes used to shrink the tumor
  • Thoracentesis: if shortness of breath is related to a build-up in fluid in the lung lining (pleural effusion), your physician may insert a needle into this space to drain the fluid

Management of Fatigue

Fatigue is common during lung cancer treatment. Often times the best treatment is to give yourself permission to rest. Make sure to share your symptoms of fatigue with your oncologist. Sometimes this can be a sign of another problem such as anemia or depression that he or she will want to address further.

Management of Weight Loss and Loss of Appetite

Loss of appetite (anorexia) and weight loss are also common during cancer treatment. ALCASE (Lung Cancer Alliance) has outlined three situations where you should contact your oncologist. Always bring up any concerns or questions you have about appetite and weight loss even if they are not on this list. These include:

  • Weight loss of over 5 pounds in 1 month without trying
  • If it is painful to drink or eat
  • If you are unable to eat or drink for 24 hours

Cancer Cachexia

Cancer cachexia is more than just weight loss. This syndrome of "wasting" is directly responsible for roughly 20 percent of cancer deaths. Symptoms include unintentional weight loss, muscle wasting, loss of appetite, and a lowered quality of life. If you've lost weight or even if you haven't, make sure to learn about cachexia and talk to your doctor about options for preventing this serious complication of cancer.

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Article Sources
  • National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Pain. Updated 08/19/16.