Breathlessness and cancer

Breathlessness, or shortage of breath can be physically tiring and sometimes cause panicky feelings.

The information on this page will help you to find out more about breathlessness, and ways to manage it, during and after cancer treatment.

Breathlessness (shortness of breath/dyspnoea)

The feeling of breathlessness can be mild to severe. It can sometimes cause palpitations. You may feel puffed out climbing the stairs, or trying to do normal tasks around the house. 

Occasionally, breathlessness can make any exertion difficult and cause feelings of panic.  Feeling panicky can also cause symptoms of breathlessness, and so it can become a vicious cycle.

There are several possible causes for breathlessness. These include anaemia, side effects of cancer treatment, chest infections, fluid on the lungs or abdomen, and occasionally heart problems.

There are also some cancers which cause a shortness of breath, such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, or cancer which has spread to the lung.

Managing breathlessness

The main thing to be aware of is that there are many ways to manage and control breathlessness effectively. If you are experiencing shortage of breath on exertion or at rest, then tell your doctor/specialist nurse/medical team. They can identify the cause of the breathlessness and offer you the right treatment.

Relaxation techniques can help break the cycle of anxiety and breathlessness. This will help you to bring your breathing back under control.

There are techniques you can learn to help slow and control your breathing. The links below have more details. You can also drop into your local Maggie's centre to talk to a cancer support specialist to find out more or to join one of our relaxation sessions.

Using a fan so you can feel the air on your face is something many people find helpful,  you can also keep a portable fan with with you to use when you are out and about.

Try to plan your day to avoid having to rush anywhere or to make multiple trips (for example, going to the shops or upstairs to get things). Ask for help with activities you struggle with.

When you are breathless you are likely to be mouth breathing - this can make your mouth  very dry and also make eating difficult.  Eating smaller and more frequent meals and having regular sips of a drink can be helpful.

Talking with others about your experiences can help - gaining advice and tips from others in a similar situation. This can be online via trustworthy cancer information websites, or by dropping in to your local Maggie's centre.

What now?

51ɫAPP out more about managing breathlessness from the blogs and links we have suggested on this page

If you have any questions or want to talk things over with our professional teams, do drop in to your nearest Maggie51ɫAPPs centre.

Last review: Jan 2022 | Next review: Jan 2023

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