Lung cancer - what to expect in the final stages

Updated March 23, 2017

X-rays, CAT scans, bones scans and MRI scans are tests used to determine the stages of lung cancer. Ultrasound and biopsy are other diagnostic procedures that can tell doctors if the cancer has metastasised and spread to other organs. Unlike stage 1, where the cancer is confined to the lung, stage IV lung cancer is terminal as it has spread from the lungs to other areas in the body. The stage of the cancer refers to the extent that the disease has spread throughout the body. This has an effect on the types of treatment offered. A prognosis of lung cancer in the advanced stage is much worse than if the cancer is found to be in a lower stage. But since lung cancer often is not diagnosed until the late stages, it is a difficult cancer to treat. Survival rates are low, with few people living for more than a year after diagnosis. Despite recent advances made in the treatment of other types of cancer, a report released by the American Lung Association shows that the five-year survival rate for individuals diagnosed with lung cancer is still a small fraction in comparison to the significantly higher survival rates associated with other cancers.


Symptoms in end-stage lung cancer include difficulty breathing, chest pain, coughing up blood in the sputum, noticeable weight loss and anorexia. Shortness of breath is often due to fluid collecting around the lung, blocking airflow. In stage IV lung cancer, the cancer has spread to tissue that surrounds the tumour, or it has spread to both lungs. In many cases, the cancer also spreads to the brain, liver, kidney, prostate or bone through the blood and lymph system. Because the cancer has metastasised to other organ systems in the body, a person begins to have medical problems other than those related to the respiratory system. If the cancer spreads to the brain, a person may begin to experience seizures, weakness on one side of the body or vision problems. An individual should be concerned if he suffers from frequent respiratory infections or has a cough that gets progressively worse or does not go away over time.

Palliative Care

During stage IV lung cancer, fluid collects in the lungs and needs to be drained to prevent the lungs from filling with fluid. At this stage, the cancer cannot be cured. Patients are basically provided palliative care to decrease pain and make them as comfortable as possible. Chemotherapy treatments during late-stage lung cancer can slow the growth of a tumour to prolong life for as long as possible. For patients who worry about the side effects of chemotherapy affecting their quality of life, doctors usually point out that the side effects of treatment are normally only temporary and may be much less severe than the symptoms of the disease. Radiation treatment is another option offered to improve the quality of life for the time remaining by helping to alleviate chest pain and coughing. However, the decision to pursue treatment during the final stage of the disease is that of the patient and her family.

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About the Author

Amber Keefer has more than 25 years of experience working in the fields of human services and health care administration. Writing professionally since 1997, she has written articles covering business and finance, health, fitness, parenting and senior living issues for both print and online publications. Keefer holds a B.A. from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. in health care management from Baker College.