Tips for Improving Lung Cancer Survival

How to Improve Your Survival From Lung Cancer

What if we told you that there are things you can do to raise your chances of survival with lung cancer - and those things don't include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy? The truth is, there are things you can do to help improve your odds. Things that are natural and non-medical, such as lifestyle factors and social support.

In the same breath as we say that we don't want anyone feeling that they are not doing enough. We all know of people who did everything right and developed cancer and it progressed anyway. The fact remains that the survival rate from lung cancer is not what we wish. But even if these tips don't improve your own survival, they may improve the quality of life you are living today.


Find Support

Patient comforted by grandson
JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images

Feeling socially isolated certainly doesn’t feel good, but having a strong support system may actually improve survival with lung cancer. Not all studies have shown this. One recent study found that patients undergoing surgery for lung cancer did not appear to fare better or worse if they had good social support.

Yet reviews of other studies suggest otherwise. One large study (one that looked at the results of nearly 150 studies) looked at the effect of social relationships on illness and mortality from a wide range of medical conditions. It appeared that people with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival. Looking at cancer alone, another study (that compiled nearly 90 studies) found that high levels of perceived social support were linked with a 25 percent lower relative risk of death.

Having a support network alone can help, but we also need to ask and receive. After I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the best bits of advice I received was to learn to receive. Not just because I needed the help, but because it is actually a gift we can give others. As one friend told me, "The best way to express gratitude for a gift is to receive it fully." People want to help. It’s important to keep in mind that one friend or loved one can’t do it all. Cancer can literally take a village. Some people enjoy listening. Others enjoy cleaning. Yet others enjoy providing rides.


Know the Symptoms of Depression

Man thinking

Studies have shown that psychological distress, such as ongoing depression and anxiety, are a predictor of survival for people with cancer – and this connection is especially strong among people living with lung cancer.

In people with advanced lung cancer, those who were depressed at the time of their first chemotherapy treatment lived only half as long as those who were not depressed. In another study median survival (that is, the amount of time after which 50 percent of people are still living and 50 percent have died), was four times shorter in people who were depressed.

The risk of suicide is also two to 10 times higher among people with cancer than the general population. The risk is greatest for men and in the first months after a diagnosis of cancer.

It’s important to distinguish between depression in the setting of cancer and normal grief. Most everyone feels sadness and grief as they cope with a diagnosis of cancer, but clinical depression is less common. It can be helpful to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of depression, and to talk to your healthcare provider if you feel depressed.


Ask for a Palliative Care Support Visit

Family with physician

National Cancer Institute, Rhoda Baer 

I’m sure some of you said "huh?" when you read the headline above. Isn’t that like hospice? Why are you talking about that in an article about ways to improve lung cancer survival?

The term palliative care is largely misunderstood. It's an approach that seeks to improve the quality of life for people experiencing a serious medical condition, by addressing emotional, physical as well as spiritual needs and concerns. During a palliative care support visit, most people meet with a team that includes a healthcare provider, a nurse, and a social worker, in order to address the full spectrum of concerns you may have during your cancer treatment.

A 2010 study demonstrated that people with advanced lung cancer who had a palliative care consult following their diagnosis survived on average 2½ months longer than those who did not have a consult.

Some cancer centers are now routinely providing a palliative care consult early after a diagnosis of cancer. If you haven’t been given this option, it might be worth asking your oncologist what is available at your particular cancer center


Nurture Your Spiritual Life

Even though the medical profession has been slow to incorporate spirituality into cancer treatment plans, an active spiritual life may play a role in lung cancer survival.

First, it is important to define spirituality. The National Cancer Institute defines spirituality as an individual's belief about the meaning of life. For some people, this may take the form of organized religion. For others, it may be represented by meditation, yoga or communing with nature.

A few small studies on people with Stage IV lung cancer found that people with a more active spiritual life not only had a better response to chemotherapy but survived for a greater length of time.

That said, I know of many people with very active spiritual lives who lost their battle with lung cancer. Yet even if an active spiritual life does not improve survival, other studies have found that spirituality clearly plays a role in coping with cancer and quality of life while living with cancer.


Get Past the Stigma

Most people with lung cancer are too familiar with the stigma of the disease. What is one of the first comments people make? "How long did you smoke?" Insensitive remarks can be stressful when you are trying to cope with the rigors of treatment. But beyond that, the stigma of lung cancer has actually kept some people from getting the care they need and deserve. Studies have also shown that healthcare providers, at times, are less aggressive in treating lung cancer patients than patients with other forms of cancer.

Make sure to read the section in this article about being your own advocate (below).


Have an Understanding of Blood Clots and Their Prevention

Illustration of a blood clot showing a clump of red blood cells intertwined in a fibrin mesh

Callista Images/Getty Images

Blood clots, also known as deep vein thrombosis, occur in 3 to 15 percent of people with lung cancer. Blood clots usually form in the legs or pelvis and can be life-threatening if they break off and travel to the lungs. In one study, there was a 70 percent increased risk of dying in people with lung cancer who experienced blood clots.


Eat a Healthy Diet

Fruits and vegetables

National Cancer Institute

We know that eating a healthy diet can make us feel better, but it may also lower the chances of cancer recurring. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has come up with dietary recommendations for people who hope to prevent cancer in the first place. For cancer survivors, they recommend following these guidelines to try to prevent a recurrence.


Get a Little Exercise

National Cancer Institute, Bill Branson (photographer)

Physical activity has been shown to play a role in lung cancer prevention, but it's a little less clear whether it can improve survival in people already living with the disease.

For those who can tolerate exercise, it may lower the likelihood of premature death and also reduce the risk of death due to other age-related diseases. Survival aside, studies do show that exercise improves the quality of life for people living with lung cancer. Currently, we don't know what type of exercise or the amount of time spent on it that is most helpful. Ask your oncologist what she recommends.


Quit Smoking


Luis Portugal/

I chose to include smoking near the bottom of this list because I don’t want to add to the stigma of lung cancer. But continuing to smoke after a diagnosis of lung cancer can mean lower survival.

In the past, studies suggested that people who quit smoking after a diagnosis of lung cancer do better with surgery and respond better to radiation therapy. For people with early-stage lung cancer, a more recent study showed an even more dramatic effect of quitting. In people with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer and limited stage small cell lung cancer, five-year survival more than doubled in those who were able to kick the habit after their diagnosis.


Be Your Own Advocate


We don't have any clear statistics that tell us that being our own advocate raises survival. But we do know that getting the best care possible is important.

Finding an oncologist and hospital system you feel comfortable with is a start. Asking questions and doing your research (and having loved ones help if needed) may help with those decisions. For example, some studies suggest that survival from lung cancer surgery is higher at hospitals that do greater volumes of surgery. The option to explore clinical trials may also be important to you. Despite the fact that the National Cancer Institute recommends looking into clinical trials if you have Stage III or Stage IV lung cancer, only a small number of lung cancer patients do so.

Finally, know the symptoms of lung cancer emergencies. While there are many reasons people may seek care for symptoms beyond our control as healthcare providers, it's heartbreaking when someone does not make it because of something that would have been easily fixed with an emergency room visit and hospitalization.

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.

By Lynne Eldridge, MD
 Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."