Treating lung cancer symptoms

Surgery in progress

Blocked airway

Lung cancer can block your windpipe (trachea) and cause breathing problems, infections or a collapsed lung. 

Treatments to help:

Internal radiotherapy

Sometimes a special type of internal radiotherapy called endobronchial radiotherapy or brachytherapy can help. This is when a source of radiation is put close to or inside the tumour. Internal radiotherapy may be given if the tumour is blocking one of your airways, causing your lung to collapse, or if you find it hard to breathe.

First, a thin tube called an applicator is put inside your lung for a short while using a bronchoscope. The tube is then linked to another tube that is attached to a machine. When the machine is switched on, it causes the source of radiation to pass inside the tube in your lung. This way of opening up the airway is often done in one session. (Picture courtesy of CRUK / Wikimedia commons)

Laser therapy

Laser therapy aims to reduce the size of a tumour that is causing a blockage. The laser beam is powerful and can cut away at the tumour like a surgical knife. The laser also seals off blood vessels so there is little bleeding afterwards. It may not destroy the entire tumour, but it can relieve your symptoms.

You will be given a general anaesthetic if you are having laser therapy. Once you are asleep, your doctor will put a tube called a bronchoscope down your throat and into your lungs. The laser tube then goes down inside the bronchoscope. The laser beam is turned on and burns away as much of the tumour as possible.

Laser therapy is very safe and most people have no side-effects. Usually you are allowed home the next day unless there has been an infection below the blockage. In this case, it may be relieved with antibiotics and physiotherapy. If the tumour grows back, the laser therapy can be repeated. You can also have chemotherapy or radiotherapy to slow the growth of the tumour and give you relief.


Stenting is a treatment that uses a mesh tube, which can hold your airway open and relieve any breathing difficulties caused by the tumour blocking or narrowing your lung airways. Stents are usually put in under a general anaesthetic. The stent can stay in your lung permanently and shouldn’t cause you any problems. (Picture courtesy of CRUK / Wikimedia commons)


Cryosurgery, or cryotherapy, uses extreme cold to freeze and destroy cancer cells. An instrument called a cryoprobe is placed close to the tumour through a bronchoscope tube. Liquid nitrogen flows through the probe to freeze the tumour. This treatment can be repeated if the tumour grows back. 

Chemotherapy, external radiotherapy and ablation treatments may also be used to relieve a blocked airway.

Shortness of breath (dyspnoea)

Shortness of breath can be caused by different things. For example, having less lung tissue to give your body oxygen after surgery, fluid on your lungs, a low red blood cell count or a chest infection. The best treatment will depend on what’s causing the problem. Tell your doctor if you are feeling short of breath so that they can find out what’s causing it and recommend the best treatment.

Fluid on the lungs (pleural effusion)

Excess fluid may build up between the linings of your lung. This is known as a pleural effusion and can cause you to feel short of breath. Your doctor may decide to drain the fluid. This can be done by putting a small tube into your chest under local anaesthetic. The tube can then be removed once all the fluid has stopped draining.

Most shortness of breath improves after the fluid is drained. If the fluid starts to build up again, your doctor may decide to do a pleurodesis. This is where your doctor will put powdered medication which causes inflammation into the pleura. This causes the surfaces to become sticky and bond together, sealing the pleural cavity and often preventing further build-up of fluid. Pleurodesis may be done under local or general anaesthetic.


Cough is a common symptom of lung cancer. An irritating cough can really affect your quality of life. You may complain of not being able to sleep, shortness of breath and pain. It is important to find out the cause of the cough. The tumour, a chest infection or bronchitis may cause the cough. Treatment with certain medicines, radiotherapy or antibiotics may help.


  • Drink plenty of fluids, such as water and fruit juice, if you are coughing up a lot of phlegm. This will loosen it and make it easier to cough up.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse to recommend a good cough mixture.
  • Tell your doctor if your cough is dry and irritating. You may not be coughing up any phlegm. He or she may give you medicine to reduce or stop the cough.
  • Avoid situations that make your cough worse, such as a smoky atmosphere or sudden changes in temperature. 
  • Make sure you have fresh air wherever you are sitting. Open a window or use a fan to create a light breeze.


A lung tumour can cause mild or severe pain in your chest by pressing on nearby tissues and organs. Pain can also be caused when the tumour has spread to other parts of your body, such as your bones. The pain may be constant or present only now and then.

Your doctor will try to find out what is causing the pain. Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy can all help to ease pain. Your doctor will decide which painkiller is best suited to the type of pain you have.

You may be referred to the palliative care team who are experts in managing symptoms, including pain.

Read more about managing pain.



Fatigue is a common symptom of cancer, often described as an overwhelming tiredness. Fatigue can carry on for some time, even after treatment has ended. 

Tell your doctor if fatigue is bothering you, so they can find the cause and give you advice and treatment to help. 

For more information

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