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The first thing you should know about fighting lung cancer: You’re not a statistic. You’re your own unique case. “Lung cancer is not a death sentence,” says Suzanne Dixon, MPH, an epidemiologist at The Mesothelioma Center. “New targeted therapies are showing remarkable results in shrinking tumors in lung cancer patients.” And taking good care of yourself is critical to make sure you get all the best possible benefits from both new and traditional lung cancer treatment.
“I always tell patients to control what you can control, and do your best not to worry about everything else,” she says. “You can't control your diagnosis. You can't control your age, sex, or genetics. You can't control how others respond to your diagnosis.” Instead of wasting your energy on any of these things, focus on the steps you can take to take care of yourself right now.
You’d be surprised at how many people with lung cancer continue to smoke, says Kien Vuu, MD, a clinical professor of interventional and diagnostic radiology at UCLA Olive View Medical Center. In fact, up to 20 percent of patients continue to smoke after their diagnosis, according to the American Lung Cancer Association. “Smoking will damage lung function and your future treatment options depend largely on how healthy your heart and lungs are to be able to handle the treatment,” he says. Quitting smoking at the time of a lung cancer diagnosis immediately improves your survival rate by 30 to 40 percent. So ditch the mentality of “I’ve already got cancer, there’s no point in quitting now.”
Quitting smoking at the time of a lung cancer diagnosis improves your survival rate by 30 to 40 percent.
“We are specifically trained to help you find the best diet for your particular diagnosis,” says Courtney Meidenbauer, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist who is board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition. “Proper nutrition helps keep patients well nourished, continuing treatment as prescribed,” she says. For example, eating lots of fruits and veggies, especially apples and tomatoes, may help protect your lungs, according to a study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Use these and other healthy foods with cancer-fighting properties, in conjunction with your medical treatment, to your advantage by collaborating with an oncology dietitian during cancer treatment.
Some cancer patients joke that the one upside to cancer treatments is how easy they lose weight, but weight loss can make you sicker and make your treatments less effective, Dixon says. In fact, lung cancer patients who gain weight during treatment do better, according to a study published in the Annals of Oncology. “I think it's important for patients, physicians, nurses, and families affected by cancer to understand that it's not healthy for most cancer patients to lose weight during treatment,” she explains. “Even if a person is overweight, we don't want weight loss while they are in active treatment.”
“Taking a normal breath for a lung cancer patient can feel so difficult that they worry they’ll never be able to breathe normally,” says David A. Shapiro, DC, chiropractor and CEO of Complete Spine Solutions. Fortunately there are some exercises you can do to elongate the muscles of the chest cavity and the frontal spinal ligament, which will help improve breathing function while going through treatment, he says. Start by lying face up on the floor to extend and flatten out your upper back. Once you feel comfortable breathing from that position, raise your arms above your head. Mastered that? Place a small book, padded with a towel, under the center of your upper back while still in the prone position. “It’s not comfortable but the longer you can do this stretch, the easier it will feel to breathe,” he says. Build up to 10 to 20 minutes per day.
Yoga has many health benefits for cancer patients, including reducing stress, increasing strength, improving recovery, and boosting mood. But perhaps its greatest benefit to lung cancer patients is helping them to do the one thing they’re terrified they won’t be able to: breathe. Practicing yogic breathing can help you learn to breathe even when you’re stressed or anxious, and can also help you keep things in perspective, says Osita Onugha, MD, a thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgery at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California. “As you breathe in and out, remember you can get through this, one breath at a time,” he says.
Getting your daily ohm on can help cancer patients in many ways, Dr. Vuu says. “Meditation has been shown to reduce the fear and stress that many lung cancer patients experience,” he explains. One we love? Headspace is available for free on IOS and Android.
One of the first things lung cancer patients discover is how many medical appointments there are. Between doctors, therapists, consultations, and treatments, it can feel like you’re always having to go somewhere—which can be stressful and hard to navigate. Resist the urge to skip any appointments, as they’re absolutely necessary to your treatment plan, Dixon says. “Patients who miss treatments and need dose reductions to continue treatment have diminished responses to treatment—tumor control isn't as good as expected, for example,” she explains. Instead, enlist one or more friends to drive you to appointments when you’re feeling weak. Even if you feel fine to travel, having a friend to keep you company can help you, she adds.
Community support is so important for lung cancer patients, Dr. Vuu says. “Cancer can cause patients to become isolated, which can increase your chances of developing depression and in turn hurt your prognosis,” he says. “Remember to allow people to love you, help you, and be there to support you.” In addition to reaching out to friends and family members, join a support group specifically for people with lung cancer to help you find new friends and avenues of support. Check out the American Lung Association’s resource page to find a group near you.
Lung cancer is a devastating and life-changing diagnosis. This is true even if your prognosis is good. A trained counselor can help you work through these changes and your conflicting feelings, Dixon says. Most cancer centers offer access to mental health counselors free of charge and if talking to someone isn’t your cup of tea, there are many online counseling services as well, she adds. The important part is that you have a professional you can communicate your feelings to.
Regardless of whether you smoked or not, no one deserves lung cancer, Dixon says. Don’t blame yourself for your illness and don’t accept blame from others. “Lung cancer is one of the few cancers where blame is routinely assigned to the person and it's unfair, unkind, and unhelpful,” she says. “When someone hears a person has been diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer, they often respond ‘Oh that's terrible,’ but when a person hears someone has lung cancer, the first thing they ask is, ‘Did they smoke?’” Every cancer patient deserves compassion, she adds.