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Managing Your Lung Cancer Symptoms

Most people with lung cancer have both the symptoms of their cancer and the side effects from treatment. Although people with lung cancer can have different symptoms, there are a few symptoms that most people with lung cancer have in common at some point in their illness. Here's a list of what they include.

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Fatigue

  • Loss of appetite, which can lead to weight loss

If you have any of these symptoms, it is possible to manage them. To learn how to do that, talk with your doctor or nurse. Your family members or caregivers should also talk with your doctor or nurse to find out how they can help you manage your symptoms as well.

Here are some ways you can cope with some of the symptoms and side effects of lung cancer, as well as some tips on how and when you should talk with your doctor or nurse.

Treatments to ease chest pain from lung cancer

It is common for people with lung cancer to have chest pain. Here are some of its causes.

  • Chest pain can be a symptom of having a cancerous tumor in your lungs.

  • Surgery to diagnose or treat lung cancer involves cutting through the chest wall. This can cause chest pain during the recovery.

  • Radiation treatment for lung cancer can cause chest pain as a side effect.

If you have chest pain, talk with your doctor or nurse. They can help find out what's causing the pain and treat it properly.

In preparation for talking with your healthcare team, it might help to keep a pain diary. Here are things you can track.

  • When your pain starts

  • How long it lasts

  • Where the pain is

  • How severe it is

Here are some treatment options you have for easing pain.

  • Radiation or chemotherapy. Receiving these treatments may help ease chest pain caused by lung cancer. These treatments can also help ease pain if lung cancer has spread to the bone.

  • Pain medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and opioids, such as immediate-acting or sustained-release morphine, can help. If your doctor prescribes pain medicine, keep in mind that it can have side effects, such as constipation and drowsiness. Always talk with your doctor or nurse about what side effects you can expect from medicine and how you can manage them.

  • Exercise. Mild exercise may ease some of the stiffness caused by lack of movement. Even just changing the position of your body by moving around, walking, or mild exercise, may help.

  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture may help reduce pain in some cancer patients.

  • Guided imagery. This is a relaxation technique in which a person visualizes or imagines calming scenes suggested to them by a recording or counselor.

Treatments that ease shortness of breath (dyspnea) from lung cancer

Having a hard time breathing is a common symptom of lung cancer. It's important for the doctor to evaluate the person for potentially reversible causes of shortness of breath. Two such causes are a blood clot in the lung, called pulmonary embolus and fluid in the chest, called pleural effusion. An infection or a tumor can also cause shortness of breath, as can heart disease.

Here are some treatment options you have for easing dyspnea.

  • Prescription drugs. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, steroids, opioids or diuretics, depending on the underlying problem. He or she may also prescribe oxygen, which is given through a small tube near your nose, to help increase the amount of oxygen available to your lungs.

  • Chemotherapy, radiation, or other cancer treatments. These cancer treatments can sometimes ease shortness of breath by shrinking the tumor. Some of these treatments, however, can lower red blood cell counts, causing anemia, which can, in turn, lead to shortness of breath. If your shortness of breath does not improve with radiation or chemotherapy, or if it gets worse, tell your doctor or nurse. A change in your treatment or a prescription for a blood transfusion or medications that boost your red blood cell count may help ease your shortness of breath.

  • Anti-anxiety drugs. Since anxiety can cause shortness of breath, your doctor may suggest that you take anti-anxiety medicine.

Treatment options for fatigue from lung cancer

Fatigue is more than not getting a good night's sleep. It's when you feel so exhausted, physically and mentally that you don't have the energy to do the things you like to do. When you have lung cancer, problems with breathing can cause fatigue. Keep in mind that if you have fatigue, you may also feel dizzy, have shortness of breath, or have ringing in your ears.

Talk with your doctor or nurse about your fatigue. Your doctor may run tests to find out if your fatigue is due to a lack of red blood cells, a condition called anemia. If you have anemia, you may need to take iron supplements or a prescription drug to increase your body's production of red blood cells. Or you may need to have a blood transfusion. Your doctor or nurse will also evaluate whether your fatigue is related to depression. If that's the case, the recommendation may be counseling with or without prescription antidepressants.

Treatment options for anorexia from lung cancer

Anorexia is a reduction in, or complete loss of, appetite, which can lead to weight loss. It's common in people with cancer. Many people with lung cancer in particular lose their appetite because chemotherapy and radiation can make food taste and smell different. Appetite can also be affected in people with lung cancer if they smoke or used to smoke since smoking destroys taste buds. Pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath can also contribute to loss of appetite.

If you have anorexia, you should contact your doctor or nurse if any of the following is true for you.

  • You've lost five pounds or more in a month without trying.

  • It is painful to eat or drink.

  • You cannot eat or drink for more than one day.

Your doctor or nurse may suggest that you see a nutritionist or that you take nutritional supplements. You can request to see a nutritionist as well.