Coping with shortness of breath

shortness of breathShortness of breath is something that we’ve all experienced. Typically this occurs when we exert ourselves, like running up a few flights of stairs. The feeling subsides quickly with rest. However, for many, shortness of breath is a daily struggle. It is estimated that 15%-55% of cancer patients experience shortness of breath, or dyspnea (the medical term.)

Dyspnea is described as an inability to get enough air, a feeling of smothering, tightness or suffocation. In cancer patients, it can be caused by the cancer or cancer treatment, or:

  • anemia
  • fluid build- up in the space between the lungs
  • tumor blocking the airway
  • radiation pneumonitis (inflammation of lungs caused by radiation therapy)
  • pneumonia
  • anxiety and stress

Throughout my nursing career, I’ve cared for many patients experiencing difficulty breathing. It can be a very frightening and wearing experience.

There are actions that can be taken to cope with this distressing symptom. If possible, treating the underlying cause is the first step. Examples of this include:

  • giving a blood transfusion to treat anemia
  • giving steroids for radiation pneumonitis to decrease inflammation
  • prescribing antibiotics to fight pneumonia.

Sometimes, dyspnea is part of end-stage disease, such as a tumor pressing on the lung or chest wall, or fluid build-up around the lung or abdomen which compromises the movement and expansion of the lung. Treatment for end-stage disease complications can include radiation therapy to decrease the size of the tumor, or removal of fluid around the lung with a procedure known as thoracentesis.

Patients and caregivers can be proactive as well, by taking the following actions. Some of these may require a doctor’s order, but others can be done easily, and can provide immediate symptom relief.

  • keeping the room temperature cooler
  • sitting or lying in front of a fan blowing cool air
  • room humidifier
  • oxygen therapy
  • cleaner air – no smoke/pet dander
  • meditation and relaxation techniques
  • anti-anxiety medications
  • morphine or opioids can lessen distress and exhaustion

If shortness of breath is a new symptom for you, especially with chest pain, it should be reported immediately to your doctor. Dyspnea that is worsening should also be reported to the physician for further evaluation.

Shortness of breath can be extremely frightening. It’s important that patients work with their physician closely to achieve adequate relief. Many centers have a symptom management clinic or team that can oversee care to effectively alleviate distressing symptoms.

Take the next step:

  • Learn about dyspnea during cancer from the National Cancer Institute.
  • Find out about services available to our patients at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Symptom Management & Supportive Care Clinic
  • Still have questions? Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine™. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an e-mail.

KimZThe Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.



University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer CenterThe University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.