A Guide To Caring For A Senior Loved One With Lung Cancer

Robert C. Fisher

Lung cancer is one of the scariest, most overwhelming diagnoses a patient can get. It is often a long, turbulent battle and demands significant lifestyle changes.

What happens when it's not you but a loved one that receives this news? What do you do now that you're playing the role of caregiver?  

Taking care of a loved one diagnosed with lung cancer is difficult, but it can also be rewarding. 

As a caregiver, you may be responsible for their medical, practical, emotional, financial, and other needs. Sometimes, caring for a loved one diagnosed with lung cancer can be a full-time job. You may help your loved one with things like: 

  • Feeding

  • Dressing

  • Providing transportation

  • Helping with paying bills

  • Arranging schedules

It's also important to take time to care for yourself. If you get burnt out, you won't be able to care for your loved one properly. If you're always taking care of the needs of someone else, you must take time to rest.

Things to Know About Lung Cancer

In the United States, lung cancer is the second most common form. Experts estimate that more than 200,000 new lung cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2022, so more people will be called upon to care for their loved ones with lung cancer.

Lung cancer is one of the most challenging forms to treat because, in most cases, there are no symptoms until it has spread. 

Smoking is responsible for up to 90% of cases, making it the leading cause of lung cancer. If your loved one smokes, they should first quit smoking, which will go a long way in cancer prevention. 

  • Some of the other risk factors include:

  • Family history

  • Beta-carotene vitamin supplements

  • Pollution

  • Toxins including nickel, chromium, radon, arsenic, tar/soot, and asbestos

  • Secondhand smoke

  • Radiation therapy

One of the most challenging aspects of a lung cancer diagnosis is the stigma that comes with it. Research from the Mesothelioma Center indicates that 12% of Americans blame the patient for getting the disease. Research also indicates that lung cancer patients often experience feelings of:

  • Self-blame

  • Guilt

  • Shame

  • Regret 

  • Anger

In many cases, it's the caregivers that must overcome this stigma and become an advocate for their loved ones with lung cancer. 

Therefore, the American Lung Association states that you should avoid emphasizing whether or not your loved one smoked.

If someone does bring up this question, explain to them that it may be hurtful to ask that question. Remind them that lung cancer isn't just reserved for those with a smoking history. This will help to bring about more awareness about this disease.

Sometimes, close relatives may unintentionally make the person feel guilty about their diagnosis. One of the ways to resolve these issues and help you process the emotions that come with the role of caregiver is to meet with an oncology social worker.

Finally, your loved one may have feelings of regret and feel like they deserve lung cancer and begin to engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as not following their medical provider’s instructions. If this happens, you need to reach out to their medical team to find ways to get support.

Lung Cancer Types to be aware of

According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, there are two primary lung cancer types:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer, or NSCLC

  • Small cell lung cancer, or SCLC

The most common form is non-small cell lung cancer. 

Approximately 80% to 85% of patients are diagnosed with NSCLC. On the other hand, according to the National Cancer Institute, 10% to 15% of cancer patients are diagnosed with SCLC. Lung cancer treatment options are very different between the two.


There are three types of NSCLC:


This type of NSCLC makes up approximately 40% of NSCLC diagnoses. Adenocarcinomas are tumors found on the outer areas of the lungs in glands that help us breathe.

The symptoms associated with this type of cancer are unexplained weight loss, coughing, weakness, and hoarseness. This type of cancer is primarily diagnosed in former and current smokers. Additionally:

  • This is the most common form of lung cancer in non-smokers

    • This is the most common form of lung cancer found in young people

    • Women are more susceptible to this type of cancer than men

    • In most cases, it is found before it spreads

    • The prognosis is much better with this type of cancer than with others

Squamous Cell

This type of NSCLC is centrally located in the lung, in one of the primary airway branches, where the trachea joins the larger bronchi. This type of cancer is generally linked to smoking and makes up approximately 30% of NSCLC diagnoses.

This type of NSCLC can be found anywhere in the lung and metastasizes quickly.

About 10% to 15% of NSCLC cases are large-cell undifferentiated carcinoma. Additionally, it’s difficult to treat because it grows/spreads quickly. Neuroendocrine carcinoma, a rapidly growing sub-type of cancer, is very similar to small-cell lung cancer.

Some of the other types of NSCLC are:

  • Adenosquamous carcinoma

  • Sarcomatoid carcinoma

The severity of NSCLC is determined through what is known as the staging process, which indicates whether it has spread. The stages are occult/hidden and stage 0 through 4.

There are several lung cancer screening tests that are used to diagnose this type of lung cancer:

  • Bone marrow aspiration/biopsy

    • MRI

    • CT scan

    • Bone scan

    • PET scan

    • Pulmonary function test

    • X-rays

There are also several treatment options for NSCLC:

  • Cryotherapy

    • Laser therapy

    • Targeted therapy

    • Immunotherapy

    • Radiation

    • Chemotherapy 

    • Photodynamic therapy

    • Thoracic surgery


SCLC makes up less than 20% of lung cancer diagnoses and is usually caused by smoking.

It is often referred to as "oat-cell" cancer because, under the microscope, the cells look like oats. It typically begins in the bronchi and metastasizes to other body areas, including lymph nodes. It is more aggressive than NSCLC.

While it does metastasize quicker than NSCLC, this type of cancer generally responds well to radiation and chemotherapy treatments. However, it does often return.

There are two types of SCLC:

  • Oat-cell cancer (small cell carcinoma)

  • Combined small cell carcinoma

Medical providers use several tests to diagnose SCLC:

  • CT scan

  • PET scan

  • Bone scan

  • MRI

Again, SCLC is aggressive, so immediate treatment is required. The most common treatment options are:

  • Chemotherapy

  • Radiation

  • Laser therapy

  • Immunotherapy

  • Thoracic surgery  

Lung Cancer Symptoms

Some early signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Chronic cough

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath/wheezing

  • Coughing up blood/rust-colored phlegm

  • Hoarseness

  • Long-lasting/recurrent respiratory infections

  • Tiredness

  • Weakness

  • Loss of appetite

  • Unexplained weight loss

Side Effects from Cancer Treatments

Cancer treatment protocols have side effects, which typically impact your healthy tissues and organs. 

If your loved one is experiencing problems, bring it up to their medical care team. Some of the most common side effects include:

  • Anemia

  • Constipation/diarrhea

  • Edema

  • Loss of appetite

  • Bleeding/bruising

  • Delirium

  • Fatigue

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • Fertility issues

  • Nausea/vomiting

  • Sexual health issues

  • Organ inflammation

  • Alopecia

  • Difficulty with memory/concentration

  • Changes in skin and nails

  • Sleep issues

  • Peripheral neuropathy

  • Pain

  • Urinary/bladder issues

It's important to note that side effects vary from one patient to another- even among those receiving the same treatment protocol.


What is Involved in Caring for a Loved one with Lung Cancer?

If your loved one has been diagnosed with lung cancer and you have decided to be their caregiver, keep in mind that you will play a dual role in their lives. You will be both a home health aide and their companion because their well-being depends on reliable support from you.

According to the experts, your caregiving responsibilities may vary depending on how advanced their cancer is, your loved one’s overall health, and the treatment plan established by their care team, which may include pulmonologists, thoracic surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and more.

As a general rule, your duties as a caregiver will include the following:

  • Medical care

  • Practical care

  • Emotional care

Medical Care Responsibilities To Expect  

When you become a caregiver for a loved one diagnosed with lung cancer, you may be responsible for providing basic medical care.

Your loved one’s medical care needs may include:

  • Ensuring they stick to the treatment plan established by their cancer care team

  • Making sure they get their medications

  • Helping them deal with the side effects of their medications and treatments

  • Making sure they get to their lung cancer care appointments 

  • Communicating with the cancer care team

  • Helping them bathe and dress

  • Maintaining an emergency contact list

  • Participating in hospice or palliative care

You may want to consider encouraging them to join clinical trials or try new treatments when they are approved.

Practical Care Responsibilities To Expect

The everyday tasks that many people take for granted can be extremely difficult for those undergoing treatment or dealing with advanced lung disease.

Your loved one may need your help with their practical needs, such as:

  • Preparing meals

  • Doing laundry

  • Cleaning their house

  • Grocery shopping

  • Driving to/from follow-up appointments

  • Paying bills

  • Dealing with financial issues

  • Handling health insurance issues

Emotional Care Responsibilities To Expect

One of the most challenging aspects of being a caregiver for a loved one with lung cancer is providing emotional support.

You will need to remain hopeful while you face the many uncertainties that come with this diagnosis. If they wish to seek a second opinion, offer them supportive care- especially if those results confirm the cancer diagnosis.

When your loved one wants to talk about their condition, listen to them. While you may want to help them solve their problems, you must remember that you can't change the situation. One of the best ways that you can provide for their emotional care needs is to listen to what they have to say and help them find ways to accept their illness.

Everyone copes differently. It's perfectly normal for them to experience good times and bad times. As their caregiver, you must accept their emotions instead of trying to change them.

If your loved one shows the following signs of severe depression and anxiety, it’s important to contact their medical provider:

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Mood swings

  • Persistent feelings of sadness and/or hopelessness

  • Low energy

  • Thoughts of death and/or suicide

  • Loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed

Things to Avoid when Caring for a Loved One with Lung Cancer

While your intentions might be good, there are several things you need to avoid when caring for a loved one with lung cancer.

  • Never adjust medications without discussing it with your loved one’s medical provider

  • If your loved one starts showing signs of depression, don’t ignore it - help them seek professional help with a therapist, psychiatrist, or counselor

  • Avoid giving your loved one false hope when discussing their prognosis - be honest but positive

  • Remember, caregiver burnout is real- don't forget to take care of yourself

  • While it’s natural to want to read the latest cancer research, keep in mind that every patient is different- don’t get too caught up in the statistics

Talking to Your Loved One about Lung Cancer

You may find it difficult to discuss your loved ones’ cancer prognosis with them.

One of the best things you can do is listen. Allow your loved one to vent and tell you how they feel without judging them. On the other hand, if they don’t want to talk, respect their wishes.

When discussing their diagnosis, be honest, but you should also be sensitive to their feelings. You're trying to navigate a difficult situation, so allow yourself some grace.

3 Ways to Take Care of Yourself When Caring for a Loved One

Caring for a loved one with lung cancer can be rewarding - but it can also be stressful and cause feelings of anxiety and depression.

Research indicates
that 40% to 70% of caregivers experience depression, and 25% to 50% meet the diagnostic criteria of major depression. Therefore, if you are a caregiver, it's important that you also take care of yourself. Here are a few ways you can manage stress:

1. Take Time For Yourself

Don't neglect your favorite activities. Make sure you still allow yourself time to pursue the same hobbies you did before becoming a caregiver.

2. Maintain Your Overall Health

Ensure you're getting adequate rest, eating properly, and exercising properly.

Also, ensure that you stay on top of your healthcare appointments and maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you don’t take care of yourself, your immune system could be compromised, and you won’t be able to care for your loved one.

3. Find a Support Group

Speak with your loved one’s medical providers about caregiver support services.

Caregiver support groups will allow you to connect with other caregivers in the same situation. You can find in-person and online groups.

Final Thoughts & Tips

Every case is different - but most of the time, people with lung cancer need a caregiver to help them with medical, practical, and emotional needs.

You may be asked to help get them to and from cancer center appointments, make sure they take their medications, take them to the grocery store, and help them pay bills.

Your loved one’s emotional health
is also important; they may need someone to talk to and lean on as they navigate their diagnosis. Often, simply having someone there that they can count on goes a long way to improving their overall quality of life.

It's also important to remember that while your role as a caregiver is important, it can be stressful, and it's easy to get burnt out. You will be most successful when you learn to take care of yourself, as well as the needs of your loved ones.