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If you have ever experienced shortness of breath, you know how frightening it can be to feel like you can’t get enough air. Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a common symptom related to cancer, particularly advanced cancer, lung cancer, cancer that has metastasized (spread) to the lungs from another organ, and breast cancer.
Dyspnea can come on gradually or very suddenly. It can also vary in intensity and the frequency of episodes. For some, shortness of breath may occur with exertion, such as exercise, walking up stairs, doing household chores, or getting dressed. Others may feel short of breath while resting.
Dyspnea can make you feel acutely and uncomfortably aware of your breathing. You may describe your breathing difficulties in different ways, including the following:
People with cancer may experience shortness of breath for a variety of reasons. For example, the tumor itself can block airways, press on the lungs, or cause inflammation in the air passageways and cause breathlessness. In addition, cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy to the lung, biological therapy, and surgery to remove all or part of a lung, can damage the lungs or cause side effects that lead to shortness of breath.
Some other common causes of dyspnea include the following:
To diagnose dyspnea, your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical examination. You may also receive the following diagnostic tests:
In addition, your doctor may ask you to describe your breathlessness, including its onset, severity, duration, what makes it better or worse, associated symptoms, and affect on your daily activities. Your doctor will also consider your anxiety level and emotional state.
Treatment for dyspnea and accompanying symptoms varies greatly, depending on the underlying cause(s). Treatment may involve certain medications, such as anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., steroids), drugs that promote red blood cell production, or drugs to treat pain or anxiety.
If you have an airway obstruction, your doctor may try to relieve it by shrinking the tumor using chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Your doctor may also use a stent to keep your airway open. To relieve pleural effusion, your doctor may perform a thoracentesis to drain fluid from the lungs. If anemia is causing shortness of breath, you may receive a red blood cell transfusion. If your blood oxygen level is significantly low, you may receive supplemental oxygen.
Treatment for shortness of breath may also involve techniques and lifestyle changes that help to reduce symptoms. For instance, your doctor may recommend physical therapy to strengthen weak muscles, increase lung capacity, and help you perform your daily activities.
Shortness of breath can be very physically and emotionally troubling, particularly when you are battling cancer at the same time. The emotional anxiety that often accompanies a cancer diagnosis can contribute to breathlessness. Feeling short of breath can also make you anxious, which can lead to further breathlessness. Not only can shortness of breath be uncomfortable, it can also interfere with your usual activities, making it difficult to eat, sleep, or socialize with family and friends. It is important to find ways to manage dyspnea to improve your breathing and your quality of life.
When to Call Your Doctor
Breathing difficulties can indicate a highly dangerous condition. Make sure you call your doctor if you:
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS REPORT ANY SHORTNESS OF BREATH TO YOUR PHYSICIAN IMMEDIATELY.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER QUALIFIED HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING SHORTNESS OF BREATH.
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