Breathlessness and cancer

If you’re breathless, you may experience uncomfortable or fast breathing. You may feel short of breath or your chest may feel tight. There are several things that can cause breathlessness. These include:

  • cancer affecting the lungs
  • a build-up of fluid in the lungs or stomach
  • low levels of red blood cells
  • chest infections
  • weak muscles
  • pain
  • blood clots
  • smoking
  • anxiety
  • cancer treatments

Your doctor can explain the cause of your breathlessness and help you find the most appropriate treatment. Your doctor may suggest you use a Borg scale to show how breathless you feel at different times. A Borg scale uses numbers 0 to 10, with 10 being severe breathlessness. You can use this to keep a diary of your breathlessness. This may help you know what makes it worse so you can manage your activities.

If you feel down, depressed or isolated because of your breathlessness, speak to your GP about medicines or counselling that may help you.

Treating breathlessness

If you experience breathlessness, there are treatments that may help you. They may include medicines, oxygen therapy and complementary therapies. Treatments may help to:

  • relieve breathlessness
  • reduce anxiety and panic
  • reduce inflammation in the lungs
  • widen air passages and increase airflow
  • loosen sticky phlegm
  • reduce excess fluid in the lungs

Medicines can be given in lots of ways, including as tablets, injections and inhalers. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have trouble swallowing so they can find another way to give you your treatment.

There are lots of people who can help you manage your breathlessness. Your clinical nurse specialist can advise you on ways to cope with breathlessness. Physiotherapists can teach you breathing techniques and easier ways of doing day-to-day activities. An occupational therapist can help you find easier ways to do tasks at home and may be able to give you gadgets to help with household chores. You may also be able to get advice from a dietitian about which foods are easier to eat when you are breathless.

Managing everyday activities

Breathlessness can affect your everyday activities. You may find it helpful to:

  • prioritise things you most enjoy or that most need doing
  • plan ahead
  • pace yourself and take breaks
  • sit down to wash, dress or prepare food

An occupational therapist may be able to help you make changes around your home to make things easier for you. They may suggest grab rails or a raised toilet seat. They can also help you think about walking aids, such as a walking stick or wheelchair.

It’s helpful to be physically active as it can improve your breathing and make you feel better. Remember to take things slowly and use controlled breathing. You can gradually build up your activity.

Breathlessness can affect your eating and make your mouth dry. It can also have an impact on your sex life. If you’re worried about these effects, talk to your GP about ways to manage them.

Relaxation and breathing techniques

Breathlessness can make some people feel anxious or like they are having a panic attack. This can make your breathing quick and shallow, which can make you feel even more breathless. This can cause a cycle of anxiety and breathlessness.

You may want to try some of the following to help with this:

  • slowing your breathing rate
  • trying controlled breathing
  • using a handheld fan near your face
  • using medication

You may want to try using relaxation techniques to help control your anxiety. These techniques can help you control your breathing when you are feeling panicky. Make sure you’re comfortable and in a quiet place before trying relaxation. You may find some helpful techniques in tapes and CDs in your local library or you may want to try downloading relaxation podcasts from the internet.

Last updated:
03 July 2024

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