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Living with lung cancer

Practical advice for living with lung cancer, covering finances, feelings and controlling symptoms.

Every person diagnosed with lung cancer reacts differently, says Alison Harwood, a Macmillan nurse specialising in lung cancer.

“The first question many people ask after their diagnosis is ‘Am I going to die?’. They want hope, and as lung cancer nurses we try to give hope, but we also aim to be truthful. This cancer has a very poor survival rate,” says Alison, who works at Bradford Royal Infirmary. 

“We talk about whether treatment is likely to offer a cure, or whether it aims to make you feel better and improve your quality of life. We won’t ever try to predict how long a patient has left to live. There is no definite answer with lung cancer. Every patient is different.”

Some people concentrate on practical issues like money, work or their family role, while others feel overwhelmed by questions about how their lung cancer will develop.

Whatever your fears for the future, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Your medical team and a number of charities are there to support you.

Coping with breathlessness

“We’re often asked for advice on how to cope with everyday symptoms such as breathlessness," says Alison. "We have a range of advice and tips for improving breathing and managing pain.”

Breathing exercises, such as breathing in slowly through your nose and out through your mouth, can help. Save your energy by using a trolley for shopping and carrying a cordless phone or mobile, so you don’t have to get up every time the phone rings. Keep everything you need for the day downstairs, to avoid unnecessary trips upstairs. 

Your feelings about lung cancer

You’re likely to feel frightened and numb when you learn that you have lung cancer. You might also feel angry, especially if you have never smoked or if you developed lung cancer as a result of your job – for example, after exposure to asbestos. If you’ve developed lung cancer after years of smoking, you could feel guilty and regretful. 

“These feelings are a natural part of accepting the diagnosis, and all sorts of emotions are likely to come and go,” says Alison.

“We write everything down for patients, as they may not take it all in at the time. We can break the news of their cancer to their daughters, sons, grandchildren and other family members, if they want us to. We can also talk to people about their feelings or put them in touch with a local support group or counsellor, as it usually helps to talk to others in a similar situation." 

Financial help for people with cancer

“Money can be a big worry for lung cancer patients, especially for those who are the breadwinners for their family and who may have to give up work because of their illness.”

Macmillan nurses and the other organisations listed at the end of this article can guide you to services and benefits that you might be entitled to, which could help to ease your money worries.

Getting support and information about cancer

If you or a friend or relative have been diagnosed with lung cancer, there are ways of getting support and advice to help you cope:

  • Macmillan nurses are specially trained to help people with cancer, their carers and families. They can give practical, psychological and emotional support, as well as information about cancer treatments and side effects. They can also help people with lung cancer to control their pain and symptoms, although they don't provide hands-on nursing care. There are almost 4,000 Macmillan nurses, most of them employed by the NHS. They work in hospitals or visit patients' homes, with some Macmillan nurses working in hospices. Ask your GP, hospital specialist, district nurse or hospital ward sister for a referral. Find out more about Macmillan nurses.
  • Cancer Research UK's website has a section devoted to coping with cancer. It includes advice about talking to people, sex and sexuality, financial support and benefits, and coping with symptoms.
  • The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation is the UK's only lung cancer charity. It can provide information on lung cancer and its treatment, and has free factsheets and leaflets on topics such as breathlessness. It also runs a number of local support groups. Phone the Foundation’s free helpline on 0333 323 7200 or visit the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation website
  • Macmillan Cancer Support gives advice and information to people affected by any type of cancer, including lung cancer. Call the free Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 2020 or visit Macmillan Cancer Support.
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