Lung Cancer and Palliative Care

Lung cancer begins when cells in the lung change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor, a lesion, or a nodule. A lung tumor can begin anywhere in the lung. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. Once a cancerous lung tumor grows, it may or may not shed cancer cells. These cells can be carried away in blood or float away in the fluid, called lymph, that surrounds lung tissue. Lymph flows through tubes called lymphatic vessels that drain into collecting stations called lymph nodes, the tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection. Lymph nodes are located in the lungs, the center of the chest, and elsewhere in the body. The natural flow of lymph out of the lungs is toward the center of the chest, which explains why lung cancer often spreads there first. When a cancer cell moves into a lymph node or to a distant part of the body through the bloodstream, it is called metastasis. (see cancer.net for further background on lung cancer)

Lung Cancer Symptoms and Treatment— How Palliative Care Can Help

Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses such as lung cancer. It focuses on providing relief from symptoms, pain and stress. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in your illness and can be provided along with treatment meant to cure.

Palliative care is provided by a team of specialists, including palliative care doctors, nurses, social workers and others. The team works in partnership with your primary doctor, oncologist (cancer specialist) and other health care providers to manage your pain and symptoms.

When chemotherapy is part of your treatment for lung cancer, palliative care can manage side effects such as nausea, vomiting, pain, fatigue, constipation and diarrhea, depression and insomnia. Radiation therapy for lung cancer sometimes makes it difficult to eat and causes pain and fatigue. Palliative care teams are specially trained to help treat all of these symptoms.

Palliative care can be helpful in managing postoperative pain. It can also help reduce anxiety in a variety of ways ranging from medication to massage, relaxation and guided imagery. A diagnosis of lung cancer brings feelings of anxiety, fear and depression. You’re faced with questions about what the future will look like. Members of the palliative care team are specially trained in communication and support. Patients can discuss their issues, fears and concerns with the team, getting help through talk therapy, medications, resources and relaxation strategies.

Because approximately 85 percent of lung cancer cases are associated with cigarette smoking, patients often blame themselves for the illness, believing it could have been avoided. Palliative care can help explore these feelings in order to achieve acceptance and serenity.

Palliative care teams can help you and your family plan for the future and offer practical advice about talking to loved ones. They also offer assistance with making difficult decisions.

Palliative care social workers are instrumental in helping design a discharge plan for you that meets your needs and those of your family. Because palliative care is family-centered, care is provided to all members of the family. First and foremost, the palliative care team is concerned with making sure that you and your family live life to the fullest from the time of diagnosis onward.

How to Get Palliative Care

If you or a loved one needs palliative care, ask your doctor for a referral.

Finding a hospital with a palliative care team in your area is easy. Just go to GetPalliativeCare.org/providers for a state-by-state list. To find out if palliative care is right for you, take our quiz.

To review innovative lung cancer research, learn from medical experts in the field and to access information from survivors and caregivers, visit the LUNGevity Foundation at lungevity.org  

To find comprehensive information on lung disease and to learn more about improving lung health, visit the American Lung Association at lung.org.