Supportive care for lung cancer

Supportive care helps people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of lung cancer. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.

Recovering from lung cancer and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each person, depending on where the cancer was in your body, the stage of the cancer, the organs and tissues removed during surgery, the type of treatment and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects. A person who has been treated for lung cancer may have the following concerns.


A cough is one of the most common concerns for people with lung cancer. It is often one of the first symptoms of lung cancer, but coughing may be a concern during all stages of the disease. Report a new cough or any changes to an existing cough to your healthcare team.

The cough may be dry and hacking, or wet and productive (coughing up sputum). Sometimes the sputum may have blood from the lungs in it.

Coughing can be caused by:

  • a tumour blocking the large airway (bronchus) of the lung
  • a buildup of fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • inflammation of the lung caused by radiation therapy (radiation pneumonitis)
  • a lung infection (pneumonia)
  • other existing lung problems, such as chronic bronchitis, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Treatment will depend on what is causing the coughing. Treatment options may include endobronchial therapies to treat a blockage in the airway or antibiotics to treat infection.

Your healthcare team may have suggestions that can help ease the coughing, such as:

  • use a humidifier in dry rooms
  • use deep breathing exercises
  • clear the airways using different body positions (postural drainage)
  • use a machine to clear the mucus from the airway

If coughing isn’t relieved with other treatments, your healthcare team may give you opioid medicines to help ease coughing.

Difficulty breathing

Many people with lung cancer have problems with breathing and shortness of breath. This can be a very upsetting symptom that can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. It can affect work, walking and physical activity, sleeping and general activities. People who are having difficulty breathing and shortness of breath may also feel anxious.

Find out more about difficulty breathing.

Pleural effusion

A pleural effusion is a buildup of fluid around the lung. This fluid can press on the lung, making it hard to breathe. Many people with lung cancer will develop pleural effusion.

Find out more about pleural effusion.

Weight loss

Weight loss is one of the most common side effects of lung cancer and its treatment. Studies have shown that people with lung cancer who lose a lot of weight don’t survive as long as people who keep much of their weight.

One of the main reasons for losing weight is a loss of appetite. Many people with lung cancer have a loss of appetite because cancer or its treatments can affect the way food tastes and make you not feel like eating. If you don’t eat enough, you lose weight.

Eating properly can help your body fight disease and cope with the effects of lung cancer treatment. Find out more about loss of appetite and nutrition for people with cancer.

Blood clots

People with lung cancer are at a higher risk of developing blood clots in the leg (called a deep vein thrombosis or DVT) and in the lung (called a pulmonary embolism). Your healthcare team may treat you with blood thinning medicines to lower the risk of this happening.

Questions to ask about supportive care

See a list of questions to ask your doctor about supportive care after treatment.


Mucus and other matter coughed up from the lungs.

Also called phlegm.