Recovery Strategies for Lung Cancer Treatment

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

It’s estimated that 235,760 American adults will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2021, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Lung cancer treatment can be intense, no matter which treatment option your doctor recommends, but it’s the recovery that can throw many people for a loop. Newsflash: Recovery is hard work! To help you on the path to survivorship, whatever that may look like for you, we asked experts for their top strategies to making recovery after lung cancer treatment as easy as possible.

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Treatment Options Can Affect Recovery

For non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for 85% of all lung cancers, per ASCO, there are several treatment options: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, immunotherapy, targeted therapies, and combinations of these. Your doctor will consider a range of factors, like the type and stage of your cancer and your preferences, to make your treatment plan. While most of the following recovery tips are general and apply to any type of lung cancer treatment, ask your doctor how your specific treatment may affect your recovery.

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Prepare for Surgical Recovery

If you’re having lung cancer surgery, the goal is to remove lung tumors and nearby chest lymph nodes, per ASCO. “Lung surgery is major surgery, and complete recovery can take several weeks,” says David Carbone, M.D., lung oncologist with The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus. That said, techniques have improved, and newer, minimally invasive approaches can shorten that recovery time, he says. “Most patients have some pain for a few days, but that is usually readily controlled.” Your surgeon can work with you on a pain-management plan.

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Eat a Healthy Diet

With any lung cancer treatment, eating smart can aid recovery. “There’s no specific diet or supplements that have been able to improve patient tolerance of treatment, but I do recommend a healthy, well-rounded diet,” says Conor Steuer, M.D., assistant professor in the department of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Limiting processed foods and sugar, while upping veggies, healthy fats, and lean protein can fight inflammation and boost health. Dr. Steuer recommends working with a dietitian to reach your nutrition goals during recovery.

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Get Enough Physical Activity

Staying active after lung cancer treatment is vital for your health and can help you manage some of the more persistent side effects, like fatigue and shortness of breath. “Cancer and its treatments can result in weight loss and muscle wasting, and the way to restore that is with diet and exercise,” says Jeffrey Crawford, M.D., lung oncologist at Duke Cancer Center in Durham, NC. Working with a physical or occupational therapist can help you get started, as they can develop a personalized routine to rebuild your strength and endurance, per Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

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Manage Your Stress and Mental Health

The mental toll of lung cancer is very real, but often overlooked. Cancer and its treatment can not only increase your risk of depression and anxiety, but in some, it can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to ASCO. “Dealing with the stress of the illness is quite important,” urges Dr. Crawford. Seeking support from others, including a mental-health professional like a therapist (ideally one who specializes in working with cancer patients), can help you take care of your mental health after treatment, he says.

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Quit Smoking

Not everyone who develops lung cancer is a smoker, but some are. If that’s you, your recovery period should include a plan to quit ASAP. “Quitting smoking has been shown to significantly help decrease toxicity and improve recovery,” Dr. Steuer says. You might think, if you got NSCLC, the damage is already done. In fact, quitting can reduce the risk of lung cancer recurrence or progression, according to a study in Oncology. Work with your doctor to develop a plan to quit, and consider calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW for resources, recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Be Diligent About Follow-Up Appointments

Check-ups are a necessary part of your path forward after lung-cancer treatment. “Cancer patients today are regularly followed by their care team at intervals that vary with the type of treatment, ranging from weekly to annually,” explains Dr. Carbone. “Most lung cancer patients should be followed by oncology for many years after the diagnosis, or even forever.” While forever can sound daunting, know that it’s in your best interest: Follow-up care keeps an eye on any long-term side effects while making sure your cancer is not returning or worsening, and more, says ASCO.

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Manage Long-Term Side Effects

Sometimes, treatment may have side effects that persist after treatment ends. For example, radiation therapy to the chest can cause issues like difficulty breathing that improve after treatment but don’t go away completely, according to the American Cancer Society. Plus, those undergoing indefinite treatment for advanced lung cancer may also experience longer-term side effects. Part of your recovery should involve working with your doctor to get these side effects under control to improve your wellbeing.

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Lung Cancer Survivorship Is Unique for Everyone

The period after NSCLC treatment will look different from patient to patient. For example, some people with early-stage lung cancer may be treated with surgery and be cured. Others with more advanced forms of the disease may never see their cancer cured and live with chronic cancer that requires extended treatment for months or years, says Dr. Steuer. Regardless of your personal situation, working closely with your healthcare team to come up with a plan that works for you following each treatment can better prepare you to face the challenges of recovery.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.