Breathlessness

Many people with lung cancer have difficulty breathing and shortness of breath (dyspnoea). This can be challenging and may cause distress.

Types of surgery that can help improve this symptom include:

You may have one or more of these procedures to ease symptoms even before lung cancer is diagnosed, and they could be suggested at any time to improve breathlessness.

You may also be referred to a pulmonary rehabilitation course to learn about how to manage breathlessness, which will include exercise training, breathing techniques and tips for pacing yourself. Read some tips to manage breathlessness at home.

Learn more about:


Having a pleural tap

For some people, fluid may build up in the space between the two layers of thin tissue covering the lung (pleural cavity). This is called pleural effusion and can put pressure on the lung, making it hard to breathe. A pleural tap can relieve this symptom. The procedure is also known as pleurocentesis or thoracentesis.

  • To drain the fluid, your doctor or radiologist numbs the area with a local anaesthetic and inserts a hollow needle between your ribs into the pleural cavity.
  • The fluid can then be drained, which will take about 30–60 minutes.
  • You don’t usually have to stay overnight after a pleural tap.
  • A sample of the fluid is sent to a laboratory for testing.

plueral tap


Pleurodesis

Pleurodesis means closing the pleural cavity. Your doctors might recommend this procedure if the fluid builds up again after you have had a pleural tap. It may be done by a thoracic surgeon or respiratory physician in one of two ways, depending on how well you are and your preferences:

VATS pleurodesis

This method uses a type of keyhole surgery called video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS).

  • You will be given a general anaesthetic, then a tiny video camera and operating instruments will be inserted through small cuts in the chest.
  • After all fluid has been drained, the surgeon then puffs some sterile talcum powder into the pleural cavity. This causes inflammation that helps fuse the two layers of the pleura together and prevents fluid from building up again.

Bedside talc slurry pleurodesis 

If you are unable to have a general anaesthetic, a pleurodesis can be done under local anaesthetic while you’re in bed.

  • A small cut is made in the chest, then a tube is inserted into the pleural cavity.
  • Fluid can be drained through the tube into a bottle.
  • Next, talcum powder mixed with salt water (a “slurry”) is injected through the tube into the pleural cavity.
  • To help distribute the talc slurry throughout the pleural cavity, nurses will help you move into various positions for about 10 minutes at a time.
  • The entire process takes about an hour.

Pleurodesis usually requires a hospital stay of two or three days. After the procedure, some people experience a burning pain in the chest for 24−48 hours, but this can be eased with medicines.


Indwelling pleural catheter

An indwelling pleural catheter is a small tube used to drain fluid from around the lungs. It may be offered to people who repeatedly experience a build-up of fluid in the pleural cavity that makes it hard to breathe and who are unable to or prefer not to have pleurodesis.

  • Using local anaesthetic, the doctor inserts the catheter through the chest wall into the pleural cavity. One end of the tube remains inside the chest, and a small length remains outside the body for drainage. This end is coiled and tucked under a small dressing.
  • When fluid builds up and needs to be drained (usually once or twice a week), the end of the catheter is connected to a small bottle.
  • You can manage the catheter at home with the help of a community nurse. Your family or a friend can also be taught how to clear the drain.

    — Lois


Improving breathlessness at home

It can be distressing to feel short of breath, but a range of simple strategies and treatments can provide some relief at home.

Treat other conditions

Let your doctor know if you feel breathless. Other conditions, such as anaemia or a lung infection, may also make you feel short of breath, and these can often be treated.

Sleep in a chair

Use a recliner chair to help you sleep in a more upright position.

Ask about medicines

Talk to your doctor about medicines, such as a low dose of morphine, to manage feelings of distress. Make sure your chest pain is well controlled, as pain may stop you breathing deeply.

Check if equipment could help

Ask your health care team about equipment to manage breathlessness.

  • To improve the capacity of your lungs, you can blow into a device called an incentive spirometer.
  • You may be able to use an oxygen concentrator at home to deliver oxygen to your lungs, or a portable oxygen cylinder for outings.
  • If you have a cough or wheeze, you may benefit from a nebuliser, a device that delivers medicine into your lungs.

Modify your movement

Some types of gentle exercise can help, but check with your doctor first. A physiotherapist, exercise physiologist and/or occupational therapist from your treatment centre can explain how to modify your activities to improve breathlessness.

Relax on a pillow

Lean forward on a table with an arm crossed over a pillow to allow your breathing muscles to relax.

Create a breeze

Use a fan to direct a stream of air across your face if you feel short of breath. Sitting by an open window may also help.

Find ways to relax

Listen to a relaxation recording or learn other ways to relax. This can allow you to control anxiety and breathe more easily. You can listen to our free relaxation and meditation audio tracks now. Some people find breathing exercises, acupuncture and meditation helpful.

For more on this, call 13 11 20 or see  Complementary therapies.


Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on lung cancer.


Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4059

Kobo

To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit: http://www.kobo.com/help/koboaura/response/?id=3784&type=3

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit: https://au.readerstore.sony.com/apps_and_devices/

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=help_search_1-1?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200767340&qid=1395967989&sr=1-1
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit www.amazon.com/manageyourkindle, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200375630

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.


This information was last reviewed in November 2018
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Life after cancer treatment
Webinars, exercise and nutrition, sexuality programs, and back-to-work support

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

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

Cancer information

Nutrition after cancer treatment
Healthy eating habits to help you maintain good nutrition 

Nutrition and cancer help for carers
Tips for preparing food for someone with cancer

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

SHARE
TOP BACK TO TOP