Breathlessness and cancer - Maggie's Centres

Breathlessness and cancer


Breathlessness, or shortage of breath can be physically tiring and may also feel very frightening. It is a symptom that over half of people with cancer may experience at some point whilst they are being treated for, or living with cancer. You may hear doctors refer to 'dyspnoea' which means the feeling of experiencing impaired breathing.

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)

Breathlessness can vary in degree of severity - sometimes causing palpitations and being 'puffed out' even undertaking the stairs, or trying to do normal tasks around the house.  Occasionally it can be so disabling that people find 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, including 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, including 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 do mention this to your doctor/specialist nurse/medical team, so 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 and help you to bring your breathing back under control. There are also breathing techniques you can learn to help slow and control your breathing. The links below have more details . You can also drop into any of our Centres 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 e.g. to the shops or upstairs  to get things and 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.

Many people find talking to others with similar experience helpful. You could read and/or post in our forum to others about their experiences or drop into any of our physical Centres and meet with other visitors. 


What now?

Find out more about managing breathlesness 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 or share experiences with other visitors you are welcome to drop into a Maggie’s Centre or get in touch online via our forums and blogs.


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