Practical Advice for Living With Lung Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on July 13, 2016

People with lung cancer are living longer thanks to tests that spot the disease earlier and new treatments. If you’re one of the 212,000 people in the U.S. who are diagnosed with it every year, the challenge now is learning how to live with it.

Research suggests day-to-day life with lung cancer can be just as tough as the treatment for it. A 2015 survey found that 64% of people who have the disease ranked things like self-care, body image, changing relationships, and meeting their own emotional needs as their biggest hurdles -- not the issues related to health care.

That makes sense. If you’re missing part of all of your lung after surgery, you may not be able to do all the things you did before. There’s also the daily battle with the emotional and social issues that go along with having any type of cancer.

These tips can help you take charge of the most common challenges of life with this disease.

Can’t catch your breath? Keep in mind that stress and anxiety make it worse. Take slow, steady, deep breaths. Fix your mind on something that will relax and calm you.

You can also try to sleep with your head raised on pillows. And light exercise may also do the trick.

Yup, exercise.

When Ilene Barth, a book publisher in New York, was diagnosed 14 years ago, her lungs couldn't hold as much air as they did before surgery. She began working at home after her operation because it was hard for her to get around. As soon as she got the OK from her doctor, she began to move again. She started slowly then did more and more.

“The key is to do whatever you did before and do it at a comfortable pace,” Barth says. “I like to swim. But certainly there are things you can do sitting down. Do arm exercises with light weights.”

Now, 14 years after her diagnosis, she can breathe better than she did before.

Not sure what to eat? There isn’t a special lung cancer diet. And despite what you may have heard, there’s no scientific evidence to support the alkaline or mushroom diet, says Aaron Mansfield, MD, assistant professor in the oncology division at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

Instead, he suggests common-sense stuff like keeping your weight in check. Need to gain weight? Bulk up your diet with a supplement drink that has nutrients and extra calories. Want to lose a few pounds? Work with your doctor to create a weight loss plan you can stick to.

Beyond that, you’ll need to avoid any foods that make you feel worse. Keep track of menu items that bring on diarrhea, constipation, or mouth sores -- common side effects of lung cancer treatments.

Barth, for instance, was told to stay away from spicy foods -- something she loves. Not only can they take a toll on your digestive system, they also can trigger a coughing fit. And that can be tough for someone with lung cancer.

Six weeks after surgery to remove a portion of her right lung, she and her family went out to dinner. While she was away from the table, her husband ordered dinner for her. “Remembering how much I love spicy food, but forgetting I needed to avoid it, he drizzled hot sauce all over my dish,” Barth says.

With one bite, she knew what happened -- and quickly took a sip of water to ward off a cough.

Think it’s too late to stop smoking? That’s never the case.Smokers with early-stage lung cancer who quit are twice as likely to live at least 5 more years. Kicking the habit will even help if you have advanced cancer that has spread past your lungs.

You should also keep your distance from other smokers. About 3,000 adult non-smokers die of lung cancer in the U.S. each year because of someone else’s habit. Secondhand fumes can also irritate your airways.

Need help with your emotions? You aren’t alone.

Telling her family she had lung cancer was the hardest thing she’d ever done, Barth says. She felt she’d betrayed them by smoking for so many years. Then guilt gave way to worry as her surgery neared.

A former journalist, Barth found relief in researching her disease. She calmed her pre-surgery nerves with a relaxation tape geared toward people facing a life-threatening condition. After her operation, she sought psychotherapy to help her face her fears -- among them, living life as a lung cancer patient.

“The therapist said, ‘You don’t have to tell anybody that you have lung cancer if you don’t want to,’" she recalls.

Show Sources


CDC: “Lung Cancer Statistics.”

News Release, Boehringer Ingelheim.

American Lung Association: “Coping with Side Effects,” “Nutrition.”

Lung Cancer Alliance: “Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea).”

Ilene Barth, creative director, Red Rock Press, New York.

Aaron Mansfield, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Thoracic Oncology division at Mayo Clinic.

Parsons, A. British Medical Journal, Jan. 22, 2010.

National Cancer Institute: “Secondhand Smoke and Cancer.”

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