Managing the Symptoms of Metastatic Lung Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 31, 2022
6 min read

Metastatic lung cancer happens when cancer cells have spread beyond your lungs to other places in your body. This is usually called stage III or stage IV lung cancer.

Metastasis, or the spread of cancer, sometimes happens gradually. You may not notice anything at first. You may start to see symptoms once the tumors are large enough to affect other organs in your body. You also might have side effects from the treatments for your advanced cancer.

Here are some ways that you might manage your symptoms and bring some relief.

You’ll tend to notice symptoms here first. Metastatic lung cancer can cause:

Chest pain. Stress and a fear of pain can actually cause you to be more sensitive to pain. This can make you more uncomfortable. Tell your doctor if your chest hurts or if you think you might have problems with your heart. Otherwise, relaxation techniques may offer relief. For example, you can:

  • Breathe deeply at a slow and relaxed pace.
  • Tense, or squeeze, your muscles for a few seconds at a time to relax your body.
  • Close your eyes and use imagery to calm your mind.

You can also try complementary treatments to ease pain. These might include:

Shortness of breath. This is a pretty common symptom, both from your lung cancer and from its treatments. Your doctor may have you try supplemental oxygen to help you feel more comfortable. But this may not always be enough.

It might be hard to do when you’re short of breath, but try to relax if you can. That may ease your stress and anxiety. Play music, meditate, or do something that calms you down.

It might also help to find a comfortable position to sit or stand. Leaning forward can make it easier to draw your breath.

It’s also important to focus on your breath. Don’t think about filling your lungs with air. Instead, focus on moving the muscles around your diaphragm. Breathe through pursed lips and keep your breaths in line with your current activity.

Save your energy when you feel out of breath. You could become tired very easily. Don’t do unneeded tasks so that you can save your breath for tasks that are more important in your daily routine.

Chronic cough. This can be common, especially if you get radiation treatment.

Your doctor will first want to understand the reason for your cough. There could be many causes. For instance, a tumor may be blocking your airway. Or it might stem from a condition like asthma or a chest infection. Treating the root cause is the best way to deal with the issue.

Experts say cough suppression exercises can help. This includes things like pursed lip breathing, swallowing, or sipping water. Other techniques like breathing exercises and counseling can also help ease a chronic cough.

It’s common for metastatic lung cancer to move into your bones, most often into your pelvic bone, your upper arm bones, and your spine. Sometimes, the cancer may also spread to the bones in your hands and feet.

This can cause chronic pain in the affected bone. It can also make it more likely to fracture. If the tumor moves to your spine, it might touch the nerves or nerve roots. This can lead to neurological symptoms like pain that shoots down your arm or leg. You may:

  • Take pain medications.
  • Ask your doctor about medications to strengthen your bones.
  • Use safety equipment at home to prevent falls, including walkers and shower chairs.

This can be common with metastatic lung cancer. Cancer that spreads to your brain can cause pressure inside of your skull. This can lead to:

Seizures. If you have seizures from your cancer or its treatment, you’ll need to rely on your caregiver to help keep you safe. This is especially important if your seizures are violent. Among other things, your caregiver should:

  • Help prevent a fall, especially if a seizure starts while you’re on a bed or chair.
  • Use side rails and bumper pads on your bed.
  • Not open or touch your mouth during a seizure, even if you begin to bite your tongue. This can happen because you lose control of your movements.
  • Stay with you and keep you safe during a seizure.
  • Not move you unless you’re in a dangerous location.
  • Keep track of what movements you make and how long your seizure lasts.
  • Loosen clothing or accessories around your neck.
  • Put padding or rolled-up clothing under your head and roll you on your side if you do fall onto the ground.
  • Turn your head carefully to the side if they can’t move your body.
  • Cover you up and allow you to rest after the seizure.
  • Avoid giving you any medications, drinks, or food until you call your doctor.

Headaches. You can try some simple steps, including getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and lowering your stress levels. You also might try:

Blurred vision. This is something you should get checked out by your doctor. Ask them if they recommend the following home remedies:

  • Use of over-the-counter artificial tears to keep your eyes moist
  • Cleaning your eyelids with warm water and baby shampoo
  • Using corrective glasses to help with your sight
  • Placing a warm washcloth on your eyelids

Balance problems. Your care team can help you learn how to use tools, like a wheelchair or walker, that can help with your day-to-day activities. You can also try strength training and coordination exercises to benefit your balance, safety, coordination, and strength.

Memory problems. A foggy brain is a common issue when you have cancer. These steps may help:

  • Keep a to-do checklist of reminders and tasks. Put this where you’ll see it often.
  • Color-code or use labels to remember where you put things in your home.
  • Set out your things for the next day the night before.
  • Place things in the same spots so you remember where they are (like your phone, charger, or car keys).
  • Write down important phone numbers and addresses on a note or in your phone.
  • Clean up any clutter so that you can keep an organized space.
  • Talk to your employer and let them know if you need to change your workload.
  • Ask others for help if you need it.
  • Exercise to keep your brain alert, but get plenty of rest as well. Keep a good balance.
  • Create riddles or rhymes to remember things.

Your doctor may prescribe medication to control the symptoms of brain metastases. Steroid and anti-seizure drugs can help you stay more comfortable.

Metastatic lung cancer can leave you tired. Find ways to take things slow and easy.

Sleepiness is another common issue. Some simple steps can help you stay more alert. You can:

  • Save your energy for when you need it most.
  • Exercise if you’re able to.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Control your stress.

Another thing to watch for is unexplained weight loss. Weigh yourself once a week, and keep track of how tight or loose your clothes are.

Talk to your doctor if you want to gain weight. They may suggest that you:

  • Add certain drinks or foods that are high in calories. You can add more calories to your diet with full-fat milk, butter, milky coffees, buttermilk, sugar, dried fruits, and cheese as a topping to foods. You can also snack more throughout the day.
  • Eat two to three servings of protein a day, such as red meat (like pork or beef), white meat (like chicken or turkey), vegetable proteins (like tofu), fish, eggs, dairy, or beans.