Lung Cancer and Shortness of Breath
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.
What Does Shortness of Breath Feel Like?
Shortness of breath from lung cancer can be both uncomfortable and upsetting. You may describe your breathing difficulties in the following ways:
- Labored or uncomfortable breathing
- Inability to get enough air or a “hunger for air”
- A feeling of suffocation or smothering
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Tightness or heaviness in the chest
- A feeling of working very hard to breathe
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.
What Causes Shortness of Breath With Lung Cancer?
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.
Helping You Breathe Easier With Lung Cancer
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.
Your Quality of Life Matters
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 cancer.
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.
Tips for Breathing Easier During Lung Cancer Treatment
- Use controlled breathing techniques. Focusing on your breathing pattern may help to reduce shortness of breath. Take slow, even breaths by inhaling deeply through your nose (for a count of two) and exhaling for twice as long as you inhaled (for a count of four). When you exhale, put your lips together as if you are slowly blowing out a candle. This is called pursed-lip breathing.
- Pace your activities. Plan your day so you use your energy on the activities that are most important to you first. If you become short of breath during an activity, stop and rest. Avoid multiple trips up and down stairs and take rest breaks in between activities. Also, try to plan activities that involve sitting down, such as listening to music, watching television, reading, or playing board games.
- Find a comfortable position. Comfortable positioning may help make breathing easier. While in bed, raise your head on pillows. Do not lie flat on your back. Instead, lie with your knees bent, or place a pillow under your knees. When sitting in a chair, sit upright and lean slightly forward with your arms resting on a table.
- Breathe clean, cool air. Good ventilation with low humidity may help alleviate some of the symptoms of shortness of breath. Lower the temperature in the room, open a window, and get rid of smoke and pet dander. It may also help to have a fan blowing cool air across your face. Avoid crowded rooms, warm temperatures, and unpleasant odors.
- Stay active. Although you may be hesitant to exercise, lack of exercise, immobility, and obesity may contribute to shortness of breath. If your doctor permits, try light exercises and gentle stretching. When climbing stairs, take your time and match your breaths to the steps you take. A physical therapist can help develop a safe exercise plan for you.
- Maintain proper nutrition. A well-balanced diet provides the energy your body needs to heal and function. Good nutrition can help reduce symptoms like malnutrition and shortness of breath. Try eating six small meals a day, rather than three large meals. Also, drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. A dietitian can help develop a meal plan that's right for you.
- Quit smoking. Although people who have never smoked may develop lung cancer, smoking significantly increases a person’s chance of developing the disease. If you are a smoker, continued smoking after a lung cancer diagnosis negatively impacts the efficacy of treatment, and increases complications and the risk of recurrence. A professional counselor/smoking cessation program can provide support and guidance to help you stop smoking.
- Track your symptoms. For some, shortness of breath has a predictable pattern. You may feel breathless when climbing stairs or during physical activity. If you notice a pattern, avoid or limit those activities when possible. Ask for help with cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking. Also, be aware of situations that make you anxious so you can learn to relax before you become short of breath.
- Follow your doctor's orders. Stay in close communication with your doctor. Let him/her know how your breathing problems are affecting you, including the impact on your daily routine. If you are worried about activities like air travel, ask about High Altitude Simulation Testing (HAST), a non-invasive test to identify if you may benefit from oxygen supplementation during air travel.
- Visit a rehabilitation therapist. A rehabilitation program can teach you various techniques and therapies to help decrease shortness of breath. For instance, a rehabilitation therapist can help you retrain your breathing muscles and apply new breathing techniques. One therapy, auriculotherapy (a non-invasive form of electrical stimulation to external ear points), may help to relieve shortness of breath.
- Try to relax. When you feel short of breath, it’s important to stay calm since anxiety can make breathing problems worse. Try to focus your thoughts on pleasant things and concentrate on relaxing your hands, arms, and shoulders. A mind-body therapist can recommend relaxation techniques, guided imagery, stress management, meditation, massage, and Yoga.
- Manage your emotions. Many lung cancer patients face psychological distress, such as depression, insomnia, loss of libido, poor concentration, concerns about family, and guilt about smoking (if you smoke). A support group or professional counselor can help you find ways to manage these emotions.
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.
About Cancer Treatment Centers of America
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) is a network of cancer hospitals unlike any other.
CTCA doctors focus on the treatment of patients with many forms of cancer, including complex and advanced cases. They work as a team, alongside cancer experts across multiple disciplines, to keep patients strong in body, mind and spirit.
CTCA care team members listen to patients and provide clear, well-defined choices. They work together to develop a comprehensive treatment plan based on each patient’s unique diagnosis and needs.
Using the latest technologies and advanced tools to fight cancer, our cancer experts provide a powerful combination of treatments. While our oncologists help patients fight cancer, other clinicians provide supportive therapies to help patients tolerate treatment, manage side effects, and enjoy a better quality of life.
Visit the full website to learn more about the innovative lung cancer treatments available at CTCA.