Managing the Side Effects of Lung Cancer Treatment


Chris Iliades, MD

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Patient reading magazine, undergoing medical treatment in outpatient clinic

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are the main ways to treat lung cancer. Some people get one type of treatment, while others get a combination. The treatment you'll need depends on the type and stage of lung cancer. Each of these treatments has side effects that vary from person to person. Usually there are ways to manage these effects so you can continue with treatment.


You may need surgery if you have an early stage lung cancer. Surgery may include removing just the cancer and a wedge of lung tissue. Or, it may involve removing a segment of the lung or, possibly, the whole lung. Side effects include pain after surgery and complications from the surgery.

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Common complications include bleeding and infection. The best way to handle these problems is to follow your doctor's instructions very carefully. Your doctor will give you medication for pain. You also may need antibiotics for infection.

Recovery from lung cancer surgery takes a few weeks. You will need to limit your activities during recovery to rest your body and give it time to heal.

Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy

Chemotherapy involves medication and radiation therapy involves X-rays. Both treatments kill cancer cells. However, they also cause other cells to die along with the cancer cells. That causes side effects like nausea and vomiting, fatigue, mouth sores, and easy bruising or bleeding. It also increases your risk of infection. Chemotherapy may also cause constipation or diarrhea. 

All of these side effects usually go away after you finish with chemotherapy or radiation treatment. In the meantime, there are things you can do to cope with the side effects while they last:

  • Take medicine to treat nausea and vomiting. These include antinausea drugs, drugs derived from marijuana (called cannabinoids), and drugs that reduce stomach acid. You can also try eating smaller and more frequent meals. Make sure to drink enough fluids.

  • Conserve your energy. Chemotherapy can cause fatigue by decreasing how many red blood cells you have. Your doctor may give you treatments to build up your red blood cells. You can also take short naps. Try to get some exercise every day, but conserve your energy as much as possible.

  • Drink fluids and suck on ice chips to help manage mouth sores. Also maintain good oral hygiene: Brush your teeth regularly with a soft brush and gargle with a mild solution—a quarter teaspoon each of salt and baking soda in a cup of water. Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter medicines that soothe or numb your mouth. For severe mouth pain, your doctor may suggest a prescription-strength pain medicine.

  • Protect yourself from infection. Losing white blood cells opens the door to infections. Let your doctor know if you have a fever or other signs of infection. Take steps to protect yourself. For instance, wash your hands often; avoid raw or undercooked foods; and stay away from large crowds and sick people. Check with your doctor before getting vaccinations and let your doctor know if anyone close to you has been vaccinated recently.

  • Manage constipation with exercise, a high-fiber diet, and lots of fluids. Fresh fruit and cooked vegetables can help. If diarrhea is a problem, a diet high in lean protein and low in fat is best. If you have chronic problems with constipation or diarrhea, your doctor may prescribe medication.

  • Be safe and watch for easy bleeding or bruising. Cancer treatments can leave you vulnerable to bruising or bleeding because you’ve lost cells critical for blood clotting. Your doctor will check your blood count, but always report easy bleeding or bruising. Watch out for pink urine or bloody stools. Don’t take any over-the-counter medicines without checking with your doctor. Take care not to cut, nick, burn or bruise yourself—use an electric shaver instead of a razor and avoid contact sports. Avoid alcohol until your doctor says it is OK.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 21, 2017

© 2018 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated? National Cancer Institute.
  2. Surgery. American Lung Association.
  3. Surgery for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. American Cancer Society.
  4. Chemotherapy. American Lung Association.
  5. Radiation Therapy. American Lung Association.
  6. Chemotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer. American Cancer Society.
  7. Radiation Therapy for small cell lung cancer. American Cancer Society.
  8. Understanding and managing chemotherapy side effects.
  9. Increased chance of bruising, bleeding, infection, and anemia after chemo. American Cancer Society.
  10. Radiation Therapy Side Effects: Esophagitis and Mucositis. Cleveland Clinic.

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