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 another part of the body through the bloodstream, it is called metastasis. (see for further background on lung cancer)

Understanding Palliative Care

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 specially-trained team of specialists, including palliative care doctors, nurses, social workers and others. The team works in partnership with your oncologist (cancer specialist) and other health care providers to manage your pain and symptoms.

Lung Cancer Symptoms and Treatment— How Palliative Care Can Help

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 treat all of these symptoms.

Palliative care can be helpful in managing pain after surgery. 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. The palliative care team provides communication and support.

About 85 percent of lung cancer cases are related to cigarette smoking. So patients often blame themselves for the illness and they believe 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. They’ll help you talk to loved ones. They’ll also help you match your goals to your treatment options.

Palliative care social workers are instrumental in helping design a discharge plan for you that meets your needs and those of your family. They support both you and your 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 palliative care team in your area is easy. Just go to the Palliative Care Provider Directory for a state-by-state list. To find out if palliative care is right for you, take our quiz.

To find more information on lung disease, research, and to learn more about improving lung health, visit the LUNGevity Foundation, the Lung Cancer Alliance and the American Lung Association.

Podcast: Gregory’s Lung Cancer Story