Managing Symptoms



Pain | Fatigue | Shortness of breath | Coughing 

The symptoms outlined below are commonly experienced by people who have lung cancer. However, everyone with cancer has a different experience; and your experience of these symptoms, their intensity, and their duration will be different as well. There are many ways in which symptoms can be managed. Changes to your lifestyle, symptom relief techniques, and medications can all help to minimize the effect of the symptoms on your well-being and quality of life. Your treatment team will work with you to find the ways that work best for you. The better your symptom management, the better your quality of life and treatment outcomes will be. Some symptoms, like shortness of breath, can become life-threatening if left untreated. So it is very important to keep an open dialogue with your treatment team about your symptoms and their treatments (and side effects of the treatments themselves). It may be helpful to keep track of your symptoms, when and where they happen, how often and how badly. You can use a notebook or a smartphone app, whichever will be the most accessible and easiest for you to refer to.


Pain can be a symptom caused by the lung cancer itself—for example when a tumour pushes against other organs or nerves in your body; or it could be a side effect of a treatment, like surgery. There are many ways to relieve pain: medical procedures, medications, palliative radiation, chemotherapy, alternative therapies like acupuncture and massage therapy, and behavioural strategies like meditation. Your healthcare team will help you find approaches that will be most helpful for you and can discuss with you their benefits and risks. Aside from hurting you physically, pain can also take a toll on your mental wellbeing. In turn, feeling emotionally upset can make your physical pain feel worse. It is very important that you talk to your treatment team and your loved ones. You do not have to go through this alone.


Fatigue is a very common symptom of cancer as well as a side effect of many lung cancer treatments. Your body is under a lot of physical stress. It is fighting the cancer, fighting to heal itself, and competing with the cancer for nutrition. It is also trying to heal itself from the side effects of your lung cancer treatments. Common symptoms of lung cancer like shortness of breath, coughing, weight loss, and sleeplessness can make fatigue worse. Feeling tired all the time will also strain your emotional well-being. Be kind and gentle with yourself at this time. Make sure you eat well and eat enough. Give yourself enough time to do the things you need to do and the things you love to do. Do not force yourself to do too many activities. Rest for short periods and get plenty of sleep. Sometimes, doing nothing all day can make the feeling of tiredness worse; a regular, light exercise routine, like light walking, can help. Moderate activity—that is, something you can do while still being able to have a conversation—for up to 30 minutes most days can decrease fatigue.

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, can be mild and make you feel just a bit breathless or happen only occasionally; and in extreme cases, it can feel suffocating or be constant. Being short of breath may make it hard to do regular activities like getting dressed and cooking. It may make you feel more tired, worried, and upset. When you are short of breath, you may tighten up your chest muscles to breathe; breathe faster; or feel afraid, anxious, panicked, or uneasy. Depending on the cause of your shortness of breath, your doctor will use a combination of treatments. For example, if your symptoms are constant, your doctor may prescribe opioid painkillers; or you may undergo medical treatments or procedures to shrink or destroy tumours that block your airways, to relieve pressure from fluid that may have collected in your chest cavity, or to hold your airways open. You may also receive extra oxygen from an oxygen tank, or medications to help you relax and feel less anxious. The doctor will also suggest things that you can do every day to make breathing easier. For example, light exercises to improve the flow of oxygen to your blood, meditation, and using a humidifier. You should also avoid smoking and smoky places. 


A cough can be caused by a number of problems common to lung cancer, such as the tumour irritating an airway, airway blockage, pneumonia, and fluid in the chest cavity. Depending on the cause, there are several different ways to treat a cough. These include clearing airway blockages, or using antibiotics, cough suppressants, and opioid medications. At home, you can try using a humidifier to alleviate your cough. Tell your healthcare team if you notice that your cough has changed, or you have developed a new cough.

For more in depth videos on how to manage breathing difficulties, please click here