Lung Cancer

Breathlessness and how to manage it

Breathlessness is a common problem for those with lung cancer and may be due to the position of the tumour as well as to physical, psychological, and emotional factors (see 'Lung cancer - signs, symptoms and delay in diagnosis'). It may be caused by fluid round the lung (See 'Pleural effusion and pleurodesis for lung cancer').

Breathlessness can be very tiring and distressing. One man described being extremely breathless while waiting for radiotherapy. Breathlessness may also be due to treatments themselves, such as pneumonectomy, when an entire lung is removed (see 'Side effects of lung cancer surgery').

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Treatments, which reduce the size of the tumour may help, and several methods can be used to reopen blocked airways to improve air flow to the lungs (see 'Cryosurgery and other treatments for lung cancer' and 'Diathermy resection for lung cancer').

Apart from treatments to reduce the size of the tumour much can be done to help to alleviate breathlessness. Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques are important. Although some people did not remember being given useful advice about breathing, others remembered that the physiotherapists in hospital taught them how to breathe correctly. 

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After leaving hospital, people said that they worked hard to improve lung capacity, using relaxation techniques, yoga, and exercises. One man, who had had a lobectomy, improved his breathing until he succeeded in climbing mountains. In particular he learnt to use his diaphragm while breathing.

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A man who had had a lung removed found that physiotherapy, which included swimming, cycling and deep breathing, helped him to double his lung capacity. One man attended an intensive two week course of physiotherapy, arranged by his fire service benevolent fund. Another man explained that he used a music tape to help him to relax and breathe more easily.

Health professionals working in the community sometimes run clinics to help people suffering from breathlessness. One man attended a local hospice where a physiotherapist taught him how to control his breathing, which he found hugely beneficial.

Medication may also help to relieve breathlessness. Some people were given inhalers and one man was given a nebulizer to help him to breathe more easily.

Many people suggested useful tips to prevent breathlessness. For example, one man said that he took care to bend his knees and that he avoided bending over at the waist when picking things up from the ground. He also avoided house dust and smoky atmospheres, and recommended walking slowly.

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Other strategies mentioned for managing breathlessness included climbing stairs slowly, having a chair at the top of the stairs, installing a hand rail, walking with a stick and learning to pace oneself.

Most smokers were advised to give up. One man described how he found it impossible to give up completely but limited his smoking to two miniature cigars per day.

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Last reviewed May 2016.

Last updated May 2016.

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