- Cancer Information
- Advanced cancer
- Living with advanced cancer
- Managing symptoms
- Shortness of breath
Managing breathlessness when cancer is advanced
People with advanced cancer often experience shortness of breath or breathlessness. This may sometimes be called dyspnoea.
Learn more about:
- Why breathlessness can happen
- Symptoms of breathlessness
- Treating breathlessness
- Ways to manage breathlessness
- Podcast: Managing Breathlessness when Cancer is Advanced
Why breathlessness can happen
Breathlessness can happen for many different reasons, including:
- fluid surrounding or in the lungs
- an infection
- the cancer itself
- scarring from radiation therapy
- pressure from a swollen abdomen
- anaemia (low red blood cell levels)
- underlying chronic breathing disorders, such as asthma or emphysema
- heart problems
- general weakness.
Symptoms of breathlessness
Symptoms of breathlessness include difficulty catching your breath, noisy breathing or very fast, shallow breaths. Although breathlessness can make you feel distressed and anxious, there are ways to prevent or reduce its impact on your quality of life.
Treatment will depend on the cause of the breathlessness. You may need to have any fluid around the lungs drained, or medicine prescribed to treat an infection or other lung problem. If breathlessness is caused by the lungs not supplying enough oxygen to your blood, your doctor may be able to arrange a portable oxygen cylinder.
Ask your doctor or nurse about medicines, such as a low dose of morphine, to manage the distress of breathlessness.
See below for things you can do at home to help improve breathlessness.
Ways to manage breathlessness
Create a breezeUse a handheld fan to direct a stream of air across your face if you feel short of breath. Or you could open and sit near a window to increase airflow.
Lean on a pillowSit up or lean forward on a table with an arm crossed over a pillow to allow your breathing muscles to relax. You can also use a walking frame when out or lean on the shopping trolley at the supermarket, as this position can ease your breathing.
Keep up your fluid intakeIt’s important to make sure you drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Being dehydrated can make you feel more breathless.
Take time to sit downSpread out activities during the day or break them up into smaller tasks. Place chairs around the house so that you can sit down between activities or when moving from room to room.
Try relaxation programsListen to a relaxation recording or learn ways to relax. Cancer Council has free relaxation and meditation recordings available as CDs or podcasts. Some people also find breathing exercises, acupuncture and meditation helpful.
Listen to our podcast on breathlessness
Dr Lucy Gately, Medical Oncologist, Alfred Health and Walter and Eliza Institute for Medical Research, VIC; Dr Katherine Allsopp, Supportive and Palliative Care Specialist, Westmead Hospital, NSW; A/Prof Megan Best, The University of Notre Dame Australia and The University of Sydney, NSW; Dr Keiron Bradley, Palliative Care Consultant, Medical Director Palliative Care Program, Bethesda Health Care, WA; Craig Brewer, Consumer; Emeritus Professor Phyllis Butow, Psychologist, The University of Sydney and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Louise Durham, Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner Outpatients, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Metro South Palliative Care, QLD; Dr Roya Merie, Radiation Oncologist, ICON Cancer Centre, Concord, NSW; Penny Neller, Project Coordinator, National Palliative Care Projects, Australian Centre for Health Law Research, Queensland University of Technology, QLD; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Xanthe Sansome, Program Director, Advance Care Planning Australia, VIC; Sparke Helmore Lawyers; Peter Spolc, Consumer.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Exercise and cancer
Exercise has many benefits both during and after cancer treatment, helping with side effects, speeding up recovery, and improving quality of life