Shortness of breath

People with advanced cancer often experience shortness of breath (breathlessness). This is also called dyspnoea.

Breathlessness can occur for different reasons, including:

  • fluid surrounding the lungs
  • having 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.

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 surgical and non-surgical ways to prevent or reduce its impact on your quality of life.

Treatment will depend on the cause of the breathlessness. You may need your 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 can arrange a portable oxygen cylinder.

See Tips on managing symptoms for ways to improve breathlessness without surgery. Ask your doctor or nurse about medicines, such as a low dose of morphine, to manage feelings of distress.

Helpful tips for dealing with shortness of breath

  • Use a fan or open a window to increase airflow near your face.
  • Sit up or lean forward on a table with an arm crossed over a pillow to allow your breathing muscles to relax.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing around your waist and chest.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Being dehydrated can increase breathlessness.
  • Place chairs around the house so that you can sit down between activities or when moving from room to room.
  • Try to relax or practise breathing techniques.
  • Use a walking frame or lean on the shopping trolley when at the supermarket, as the position or pace can ease your breathing.
  • Spread out activities during the day or break them up into smaller tasks.

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono services, financial and legal assistance, and no interest loans

Cancer information

What is cancer?
How cancer starts and spreads

Dealing with the diagnosis
Common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and how to find hope

View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends