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Treating symptoms of advanced lung cancer

Symptoms of advanced cancer can be difficult to cope with. But doctors and nurses can offer support and treatment to help you.

Treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy or targeted cancer drugs can help to shrink the cancer, reduce symptoms and help you feel better.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any symptoms that you have so they can help you.

Possible symptoms

You might get one or more of the following symptoms:

Tiredness is a common symptom of advanced cancer. It can feel a bit overwhelming and as though you don’t have any energy. 

Let your doctor or nurse know if you’re very tired as they might be able to prescribe medicine to help or other treatments. For example, a blood transfusion can give you more energy if you’re tired due to anaemia (low red blood cell levels).

Resting

It’s important to rest a few times throughout the day. Resting regularly can help you feel less tired and more able to cope. You don't have to sleep during these times. Just sitting or lying down will help. 

Exercise

Exercising can be hard when you feel very tired. But research shows that daily light to moderate exercise can give you more energy. Going for a gentle walk is very good. Gentle exercises in bed or standing up can help if you can’t move around easily. 

Your hospital physiotherapist might be able to help you plan an exercise programme that suits your needs.  

Sleeping

You might feel more tired if you have trouble sleeping at night. It can help to change a few things about when and where you sleep.

You might have pain in the area of the cancer but not everyone does. Painkillers can usually control pain well. 

There are many different painkillers and ways of taking them. Your doctor and nurse can help you to be pain free most of the time. 

You and your friends or relatives can do things to help reduce the pain. Complementary therapies such as relaxation and massage can help.
 

Cancer can sometimes make you short of breath due to fluid that collects around the lungs. This collection of fluid is called a plural effusion.

Fluid on the lungs can be uncomfortable but a doctor can drain the fluid to make you more comfortable.

Diagram showing the pleura and pleural effusion

You might feel very breathless if the cancer is blocking your airway. This can be distressing. Doctors can use treatments to remove some of the blockage to help you feel less breathless. And you can learn breathing techniques to help.

You might notice that your face, neck or arms are swollen. This might be because the tumour is blocking a large vein in your chest. This is called superior vena cava obstruction (SVCO).

You might notice you:

  • have swollen veins in your neck and chest
  • are breathless
  • have a headache
  • are dizzy and can’t see clearly

Treatments for SVCO include:

  • chemotherapy
  • steroids
  • radiotherapy
  • putting a tube called a stent into the vein to keep it open

Swallowing can be difficult and painful if you have advanced lung cancer. This might make it hard to get enough nutrition. And you might find you are losing weight.

Your dietitian can help you. They can give you advice on a soft diet or nourishing drinks that you can sip.

Treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy or laser therapy can sometimes shrink the cancer. Then you can swallow more easily.

Other possible symptoms

Other symptoms depend on where the cancer has spread to: 

You might have a swollen tummy (abdomen) if your cancer has spread to the liver. The swelling is due to a build up of fluid called ascites. It can make your clothes feel tighter. Your tummy might feel bloated. You might also find it difficult to sit comfortably or to move around.

Your doctor can drain off the fluid by putting a small, flexible tube into the abdomen. This helps you to feel more comfortable.

You might have bone pain if your lung cancer has spread to your bone. Your bones might be weaker, so they could break more easily.

Treatments include:

  • painkillers
  • radiotherapy
  • surgery
  • medicines called bisphosphonates
  • radiofrequency ablation

Cancer that has spread into the spinal bones can cause pressure on the spinal cord. This is called spinal cord compression. The pressure on the spinal cord stops the nerves working normally. This can lead to:

  • back pain
  • changes in sensation, such as tingling or numbness
  • changes in the way your bowel or bladder work
  • difficulty walking
spinal cord compression.jpg
Spinal cord compression is an emergency. It is important to get treatment as soon as possible.

You might have any of the following symptoms if your cancer has spread to your brain:

  • headaches
  • feeling sick
  • weakness of a part of the body
  • fits (seizures)
  • personality changes or mood changes
  • eyesight changes
  • confusion

Controlling symptoms

Symptoms can usually be well controlled. 

Your doctor or specialist nurse can help you. They can

  • give you medicines
  • get equipment that you need
  • suggest other ways of controlling your symptoms
  • tell you about things that you or your friends and family can do
  • refer you to a symptom control team (a palliative care team)

Symptom control team

Members of the team are experts at controlling symptoms. They can help you to stay as well as possible for as long as possible. There are symptom control teams in most cancer units. They are also in hospices and many general hospitals.

Most symptom control teams have home care services so they can visit you at home.

Towards the end of life

It’s natural to want to find out what is likely to happen in the last few weeks or days of life.

You might need to choose where you want to be looked after and who you want to care for you.

You can call the Cancer Research UK nurses if you have questions or want to talk about coping with advanced cancer. Call free on 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Information and help