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Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States. Many
people with lung cancer, or with cancer that metastasizes to the lung,
experience shortness of breath (also called dyspnea). If you have
experienced this symptom, you know how frightening it can be to feel
like you are fighting for every breath.
Fortunately, lung cancer today is not the same disease as it was a
decade ago. Recent treatment advancements are better able to target the
disease and improve quality of life by relieving unpleasant symptoms
like shortness of breath.
Shortness of breath from lung cancer can be both uncomfortable and
upsetting. You may describe your breathing difficulties in the following
Shortness of breath can come on gradually or very suddenly, and can
vary in intensity and 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.
The lungs are two large organs made of spongy tissue, which lie above
the diaphragm and under the rib cage. When you breathe in, your lungs
absorb oxygen and deliver it to the bloodstream where it’s pumped
throughout the body. When you exhale, the lungs remove carbon dioxide (a
waste gas) from the bloodstream. Lung cancer interferes with this vital
process and can make breathing more difficult.
For instance, the tumor itself can block airways, press on the lungs,
or cause inflammation in the air passageways, resulting in
breathlessness. In addition, some 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.
Many lung cancer patients develop central airway obstructions.
Obstructions in the airway make breathing difficult and can prevent you
from receiving, or responding effectively to, lung cancer treatments.
Fortunately, new minimally-invasive techniques can be used to detect and
treat the disease, and help you breathe easier.
Interventional pulmonology aims to improve lung function by removing
obstructions in the airway. Bronchoscopy procedures, for example, can be
used to remove airway obstructions, which can relieve shortness of
breath and reduce the risk of pneumonia. Other procedures, such as a
thoracentesis, can be used to treat pleural effusion (abnormal fluid
build-up around the lungs).
In addition, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy can be used to
destroy cancer cells, shrink tumors, and relieve common lung cancer
symptoms. Your doctor may also recommend inhalers, nebulizers, or
certain medications, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, drugs that promote
red blood cell production, or drugs to treat pain or anxiety.
Treatment for shortness of breath may also involve techniques and
lifestyle changes that help to reduce symptoms. For instance,
rehabilitation therapies can be used to strengthen weak muscles,
increase lung capacity, and help you breathe easier so you can continue
to perform your usual activities.
Shortness of breath can be very physically and emotionally troubling.
It can interfere with your everyday activities, making it difficult to
eat, sleep, be physically active, or socialize with family and friends.
Feeling short of breath can also make you anxious, which can lead to
further breathlessness. It’s important to find ways to breathe easier so
you can continue to lead a productive, fulfilling life with lung
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 WITH LUNG CANCER.
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