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Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

Talk with your doctor to see if respiratory therapy might help you.

Shortness of breath is common for people with lung cancer. Breathing can be uncomfortable and you may feel like you can't get enough air into your lungs. It can be a scary sensation. Dyspnea can happen even when the levels of oxygen in the blood are normal.

There are several causes of dyspnea:

  • Airway obstruction
  • Pneumonia and other lung illnesses
  • Fluid buildup around the lungs (pleural effusion) or heart (pericardial effusion)
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Radiation pneumonitis, a possible side effect of radiation which inflames and damages lung tissue

It is important to tell your doctor if you are having difficulty breathing so he or she can determine the cause.

Practical tips to prevent and manage shortness of breath:

  • If you smoke, try to quit. Your healthcare provider can help. Avoid smoky places. 
  • Try to stay healthy. Wash your hands frequently, and stay clear of people who are sick.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether using an incentive spirometer (a device designed to improve lung function) might help improve your breathing.
  • Drink lots of liquids to stay hydrated. This can help thin mucus and make coughing easier.
  • Using a humidifier or a vaporizer may help thin mucus and make coughing easier.
  • Try light exercise, if possible. Exercise can help increase the flow of oxygen to your blood.
  • Sleeping with your head raised (on pillows) may make it easier to breathe.
  • Manage anxiety by taking slow, steady, deep breaths, and try to visualize to a setting that relaxes and calms you. Try to stay focused on the setting and breathe slowly.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether supplemental oxygen may be helpful.

Some exercises may help you breathe easier. These breathing exercises are courtesy of Donna Wilson RN, MSN, RRT/Personal Trainer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Integrative Medicine Center, New York City.

Donna Wilson created these videos to help lung cancer patients and also patients with breathing problems. Different upper and lower body exercises are performed to maximize the delivery of oxygen to lung tissue and the body. To view all of Donna's videos on Youtube, please click here.