Metastatic Lung Cancer: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on March 10, 2023
3 min read

Lung cancer becomes advanced when it spreads to the other lung or spreads to other parts of your body. Sometimes it’s called metastatic or stage IV disease.

There are two main forms. Non-small-cell lung cancer is the most common one. About 85% of people with the disease have this type. The other kind is small-cell lung cancer. The names describe the type of cancer cells seen with a microscope.


Lung cancer is very hard for doctors to find in its early stages. Even if you have symptoms, like a cough or feeling tired, you might not feel bad enough to see a doctor. Most people are diagnosed after their disease becomes advanced. Although there’s no cure for lung cancer at this stage, there are treatments that can make symptoms easier to handle.

Most of the time, surgery won’t work for advanced lung cancer because it has spread.

Most people with the disease can have treatment with a mix of radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies -- drugs that attack specific parts of the cancer cells. Your doctor will recommend the therapies they think are most likely to help you.

Often, the goal of treatment isn’t to get rid of the cancer but to help you live longer and feel better even with cancer still in your body. Your doctor may call this approach palliative care. It will make you more comfortable by improving your symptoms such as pain, nausea, and coughing. You can also get palliative care along with other treatments such as chemotherapy.

It’s normal to feel a mix of emotions when you learn you have cancer -- things like fear, anger, and sadness. You don’t have to deal with them alone. Talk to friends, family, or a professional counselor to sort through what you’re feeling. Other people with lung cancer might also be able to offer understanding and advice.

The disease also might make you feel tired much of the time. Think about which activities are important to you, and focus your energy on them.

You can also rethink your tasks around the house. Some people hire professional caregivers to take care of the basics. Or friends and relatives might help. Others opt for hospice care, which helps you and your family prepare for the end of life.

People with advanced cancer often have pain, though not everyone does. Tell your doctor about it and talk about different ways to control it, such as medications.

Shortness of breath is also common. It can help to pace your activities and take rests, even if you're just going to the bathroom. Some people can breathe easier with medications or oxygen therapy.

You might also get peace of mind if you have your finances and legal documents in order. An advance directive tells people what kind of care you do and don’t want if you can't make your own decisions in the moment. A durable power of attorney for health care (or health care power of attorney) will  let you give someone the abilitiy to make those decisions on your behalf if you no longer can.

If you take care of yourself and let others help you, you’ll be better able to enjoy each moment as it comes.