Patient consultation

What is it like to work as a lung cancer nurse?

Lung cancer is the most common cancer in the world. Over 1.6 million people across the globe were diagnosed with the disease in 2008 (the last comprehensive count). That’s more than 4,300 people every day.

But these chilling numbers aren’t the ones we think of, or are aware of, when we try that first tentative, rather unpleasant puff. A puff that, for some, is a step on the path to addiction. An addiction that can lead to death.

Tobacco is at the root of a whole variety of cancers. But the one most associated with it is lung cancer.

With this in mind, we’ve asked one of our cancer information nurses – Caroline – to share her experience of working as a lung cancer nurse, and describe what it’s like to care for cancer patients.

This post also comes after the government launched a public consultation on the the future of tobacco packaging, and whether all branding should be removed to help reduce the appeal of tobacco to young people. We believe this will be effective and we’ve launched The Answer is Plain campaign so the public can show their support.

Please keep one simple statistic at the back of your mind when reading this – nine in ten lung cancer deaths are down to smoking.

I’ve been working at Cancer Research UK as a Cancer Information Nurse for about 18 months now. Working on the telephones, answering email enquiries about cancer and posting online replies on Cancer Chat and Yahoo.

These enquiries range from people worried they may have cancer, to people wanting to enter a clinical trial and to those who are trying to cope with a loved one being diagnosed with cancer.

That’s only a snap shot of what we get asked about – it’s astonishing what one subject can generate in terms of feelings, questions and worry.

But before joining Cancer Research UK I was a Lung Cancer Nurse Specialist working at different hospitals across London. This involved being part of the team who diagnosed, treated and supported people with lung cancer and their families.

It’s difficult for me to think about all the people I’ve met who’ve been affected by lung cancer – not just those who have been diagnosed with the disease, but their families too. The overriding desire for me is to tell you about all the people I helped to treat who eventually died from their disease.

Because unfortunately, this is my main memory.

Some people are cured: usually those who are diagnosed at an early stage and can have surgery. These are the people who I used to see in follow up clinics for up to five years.

But – despite some progress in treating lung cancer – they are still in the minority. Most people go through treatment that will not cure them but that may help them to live for a few extra weeks or months, and in some cases a few years.

Having cared for and frequently talked to people with lung cancer and their families, I can honestly say it has a devastating effect. Both physically and emotionally.

Treating people with cancer can often be hugely rewarding, but also tremendously tough. One particularly vivid memory is of the moment a woman was told she had lung cancer. She was in her 40s and had smoked about 20 cigarettes a day since she was in teenager, when the dangers of smoking were less well-known.

Because of a cough she’d had for a few weeks her GP arranged for her to have a chest x-ray. This was reviewed by a specialist chest doctor who saw a suspicious shadow on her lung. A CT scan and biopsy were done and she was now back to the lung clinic with her family, her doctor and I to get the results.

She was told she had ‘small cell’ lung cancer, an aggressive and fast-growing form mostly caused by cigarette smoking. The doctor showed her the CT scan on the computer screen and pointed out the cancer in her lung. This scan also showed that she had severe damage to the bones in her spine, which explained why she had so much pain in her back that she was finding it difficult to walk when she first came in.This was likely to be caused by the lung cancer spreading and the reason for the pain in her back.

I can still remember the despair on their faces, the crying of the children, the pain they all must have felt. As a mother myself, I knew she was not only worried for herself but for her children. I wondered how she would possibly cope.

Sadly, she died six months after finishing six months of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

I’ve met countless men and women with similar stories. Of course, some non-smokers get lung cancer too, but more often than not the people I looked after during my time as a lung cancer specialist were smokers. And almost all the people I looked after told me that they were sorry they smoked.

This is why it’s so important to help smokers to quit and to prevent young people from starting in the first place.

I’m proud to work for Cancer Research UK. And my experience of trying to help lung cancer patients is why I think our new campaign, to persuade the government to force the tobacco industry to sell their deadly products in standardised packaging, has my full support.

Tobacco still takes the lives of far too many fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, grandparents, uncles, aunts and children. We need to end the packet racket – to keep smoking rates on a downward trend, and lower the number of people who have to hear those devastating words: ‘you have lung cancer’.


  • To support the campaign to put tobacco in plain packaging and end the packet racket, sign our petition.