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Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

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This information was reviewed and approved by Jeffrey Kern, MD, Bronwyn Long, DNP, MBA, ACHPN, AOCNS, ACNS-BC, Laurie L. Carr, MD (10/1/2019).

The side effects of cancer treatment can be different for each person. Side effects can vary based on the type of cancer you have and the type of treatment you receive. Before you begin treatment, it is important to talk with your doctor about the possible side effects that may occur and inform your doctor about the side effects you experience during and after lung cancer treatment. Your doctor can provide suggestions to help relieve symptoms to the following:


Managing Pain

Pain can occur with lung cancer, but pain can be relieved and controlled. Pain can occur from the cancer, procedures, surgery and the general muscle aches, headaches and soreness everyone can get. If you are experiencing pain, it is important to discuss your pain with your health care provider. When you talk with him or her, describe what the pain feels like, what makes the pain worse and what seems to help the pain. This is very helpful in determining the best treatment or combination or treatments for your pain.

Medication may be prescribed on a regular basis to control the pain or as needed with the first feeling of pain. Medication tends to be more effective when given at the first sign of pain, rather than waiting until the pain is worse.

In addition to medications, other treatments may be helpful. Relaxation techniques, biofeedback, physical therapy, hot and/or cold packs, exercise and massage can all be helpful. In addition, support from family, friends and a support group can be helpful.


Managing Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath)

Dyspnea, or being short of breath, experiencing “air hunger” or having difficulty catching your breath, is a subjective symptom that can occur with lung cancer. There are no tools that can measure your sense of breathlessness. You may feel short of breath even though the pulse oximeter may read 93 percent. The important thing is to treat this symptom until you are comfortable and feel as if you are no longer short of breath.
Dyspnea may be caused by a lung cancer tumor blocking an airway or replacing part of your lung, fluid in or around the lungs (edema, pleural effusion), blocked blood flow in the major blood vessels to the heart (superior vena cava syndrome), blood clots in your lungs (pulmonary emboli), pneumonia or other respiratory infection, anemia (low red blood cell count), or hyperventilation due to anxiety. 

Sudden dyspnea or a rapid feeling of air hunger may indicate a medical emergency. Call 911 if you experience severe symptoms. Otherwise, call the Lung Cancer Center staff to discuss your symptoms. Prolonged dyspnea can lead to confusion and weakness, increasing your risk of falls.

Non-Drug Treatments

  • Practice pursed-lip breathing to improve ventilation, release trapped air and promote relaxation.

  • Place a small fan nearby to increase air circulation and create a breeze blowing across (not directly at) your face.

  • Open a window to increase air circulation and cool the room.

  • Try relaxation therapy, massage or guided meditation to slow your pace of breathing.

  • Attend a National Jewish Health class on stress management/relaxation, oxygen therapy or lung disease management.


Drug/Prescribed Treatments

Your doctor may prescribe medications to ease the work of breathing, open airways, and remove fluid buildup in your lungs. Your doctor may recommend using supplemental oxygen or procedures that can improve your ability to breathe.

What Not to Do


  • Smoking and spending time in smoke-filled rooms

  • Respiratory irritants, such as pollen and other allergens

  • Alcohol and caffeine

  • Strenuous exercise.

Do not drive yourself to the hospital if you experience chest pain and shortness of breath. Call 911.

Shortness of breath is a common symptom of lung cancer and lung disease. Breathing techniques and oxygen therapy can be helpful.


Breathing Techniques

Breathing techniques can help you move air in and out of your lungs more easily. This will help your shortness of breath. It will also help you think of your breathing and relax. Pursed-lip breathing is one breathing technique. To do pursed-lip breathing:

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose with your mouth closed. Try to breathe in a normal amount of air.

  • Purse your lips lightly, like you are going to whistle.

  • Exhale slowly through your mouth. Breathe out for twice as long as your breathe in.


Oxygen Therapy

If your lungs cannot transfer enough oxygen into the blood, oxygen therapy may be needed. Oxygen therapy is used to assure that there is enough oxygen in the blood to provide for the body's needs during sleep, rest and activity. Oxygen therapy can also help you feel less short of breath, and you will be able to be more active. If you need oxygen therapy, your health care provider will prescribe oxygen therapy. You will be instructed in how to use oxygen therapy correctly.


Managing Fluid Around the Lungs

Fluid may collect between the chest wall and the lung (pleural space). This can cause shortness of breath or trouble breathing. This fluid can be drained to relieve shortness of breath using a needle placed through the chest wall and into the fluid collection. Sometimes for large fluid collections, or if the fluid returns, a catheter is placed to drain the fluid, and it may be left in place to remove fluid as it collects in the pleural space.


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