What is it Like to Die of Lung Cancer?

Doctor with lung X-ray
What is it like to die from lung cancer?. Photo © RapidEye/E+/Getty Images

Question: What is it Like to Die from Lung Cancer?

Many lung cancer patients and their loved ones want to know what to expect when dying of lung cancer. Although many advances have been made in the treatment of lung cancer in general, lung cancer remains a very aggressive form of this disease and is the most common form of cancer worldwide, accounting for 1.6 million deaths in 2012. This article examines what you and your loved ones can expect if you've exhausted all curative treatments and find yourself in the final stages of lung cancer.

Answer: People dying from lung cancer can expect some/all of the following:

Coughing and Breathing Difficulties

Many people in the final stages of lung cancer experience an intense cough. Sometimes they might even cough up blood, which can feel very frightening but can be managed by your palliative care team. If you experience such a coughing spell, it can leave you feeling short of breath and fatigued. Your palliative care team will work with you to devise a plan to help you remain as comfortable and calm as possible after these coughing fits.

A common fear of lung cancer patients is if they will die while feeling as if they are "suffocating," but this is simply not the case for most patients. Shortness of breath can be managed with medications, oxygen and other means to help you feel more comfortable and relaxed.

Increasing Weakness

During the final weeks or months of your life, increasing weakness will make normal day-to-day tasks difficult.

You might initially find yourself unable to walk without assistance before eventually transitioning to a wheelchair. Later, you might be confined to a couch or a chair until you are eventually bed bound.

In addition, your coughing fits might further exacerbate the exhaustion you feel and leave you feeling drained for an hour or more afterward.

You also will become increasingly dependent on others for your care. Therefore, it is a good idea to make arrangements ahead of time for someone to take care of you, such as a family member, by hiring a professional caregiver or by entering a nursing facility.


About half of all patients dying from any form of cancer experience severe pain at some point. In addition, lung cancer can spread to the bones in your chest or your spine, which can also cause severe pain. Again, your palliative care team is highly trained in pain management and will work hard to keep you comfortable and calm during this time. There are additional things you can do manage your pain in a palliative care setting, as well.

Decreased Appetite and Weight Loss

Nearly every lung cancer patient experiences a decreased appetite and weight loss as his or her body begins the dying process. Because the body no longer needs the calories it once did, the gut begins to shut down as the body focuses on the organs most necessary for survival, such as the brain, heart and lungs.

Thus, it is perfectly normal to not feel hungry and to eat only when you feel like it/what you feel like eating. As your food/calorie intake decreases, you will continue to lose weight, which is a normal part of the dying process.


Most people dying of lung cancer will experience the symptoms common at the end of life, such as anxiety, agitation and even confusion. You might eventually fail to recognize your loved ones. You might experience confusion as to where you are or what is happening around you. You might experience delirium or terminal restlessness. This can be very upsetting but your hospice care team will be prepared to treat your anxiety or agitation that can accompany confusion.

You might want to prepare for this eventuality by getting your affairs in order during your remaining time, such as making your end-of-life wishes known to your loved ones and creating an advance directive; saying everything you want to say to family members, friends and anyone else important to you; preparing your legal will; and even planning your own funeral. There are numerous tasks you can accomplish during your terminal illness to help prepare those closest to you for what's ahead.

Will I Die Peacefully?

Probably the number-one question most lung cancer patients and their loved ones ask is whether he or she will die peacefully. Despite all of the symptoms listed above, most lung cancer patients experience a peaceful and comfortable death when under professional care. Choosing to die with the support of hospice care and/or palliative care can help ensure that you will have 24-hour access to healthcare professionals and expert pain and symptom management during your remaining time.

Edited and updated by Chris Raymond, February 17, 2016.

"Lung Cancer Fact Sheet." American Lung Association. Retrieved February 17, 2016. http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/lung-cancer/learn-about-lung-cancer/lung-cancer-fact-sheet.html

"Symptom Relief for the Dying Patient" by Elizabeth L. Cobbs, M.D.; Karen Blackstone, M.D.; Joanne Lynn, M.D., M.A., M.S. www.merckmanuals.com. Retrieved February 17, 2016. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/special-subjects/the-dying-patient/symptom-relief-for-the-dying-patient

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