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Coping with breathlessness

Find out what can help you to cope with breathessless when you have lung cancer.

How you may feel

Being breathless can be hard to live with. It can make you feel very tired and as though everything is a struggle. Some days might seem harder than others. But there are things that can help you to cope.

Colds and infections

You might have a chest infection if you are more breathless than usual and are coughing up phlegm or have a temperature. People with lung cancer can be more prone to infections. Contact your GP or specialist nurse.

You might need a course of antibiotics to clear up the infection. Then your breathing will be easier.

Feeling anxious

If you are very anxious, this can make you feel more breathless. This can be very frightening and make you feel even more anxious.

If you feel panicky, try to slow your breathing down. Concentrate on breathing in and out slowly.

You can practise using breathing exercises so that you are confident about using them when you need to.

You can also learn relaxation techniques. There are many books, tapes, CDs and DVDs available. Some support groups can lend you books and other resources. Or you might be able to borrow some from your local library.

Controlling your breathing

When you are breathless you may find that you breathe faster and your shoulders tense up.

You may feel that this helps you in the short term. But over a long period it can make it harder and more tiring for you to breathe.

Try to control your breathing. It can help to think about:

  • breathing in slowly through your nose
  • breathing out through your mouth

Try to relax your shoulders as you breathe out. It can help to have someone gently massaging or pressing on your shoulders as you do this. With practice you should notice that you breathe more deeply as well as more slowly.

This 3-minute video shows breathing techniques to help with long term breathlessness.

Moving around

It can be easier to walk around and go up stairs if you control your breathing.

Try matching your breaths to the steps you take.

When going upstairs, breathe in on one step and out on the next couple. Don't rush. It's better to go upstairs slowly than rush up and have to stop and recover at the top.

Planning to make your life easier

You can help yourself by thinking ahead. Make sure the things you need at home during the day are easy to get to. And think about what you are going to do beforehand.

Here are some ideas you can try out:

  • Move everything you need downstairs to avoid unnecessary trips up and down.
  • Use a cordless phone or a mobile phone.
  • Try using a trolley or bag on wheels to carry shopping or washing around.
  • For household tasks, plan ahead and get everything you need together before you start.
  • Pace yourself and allow rest times – you will get more done if you don't take on too much at once.

Using a fan

Position a fan where it can blow a stream of cool air across your face. This can help to reduce breathlessness. You can also use a hand held portable fan.

Eating and drinking

Chewing and swallowing can be difficult if you are feeling breathless.

Try some of the following tips:

  • Have lots of small meals instead of a few large ones.
  • Take smaller mouthfuls.
  • Avoid foods that are difficult to chew.
  • Keep a drink close by to sip through the day.

Remember that you can lose a lot of fluid in your breath. Especially if you are breathing through your mouth. Make sure that you drink plenty of fluids. Being dehydrated can make saliva and phlegm stickier. Thick saliva can also make it difficult to chew and swallow.

Asking for help

Many hospitals have specialist clinics for people who have breathing problems. Ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to one in your area.

Staff in the clinic can teach you breathing techniques and much more about coping with breathlessness. If there isn't a special clinic, you could have a chat with a physiotherapist or nurse who specialises in helping people with breathing.

Talking things through may help you to solve a few problems.

If you need oxygen

If you are very breathless you can have oxygen tanks brought to you at home.

You can also get oxygen for when you are away on holiday or travelling.

More information about coping with breathlessness

There are many treatments that can help you to breathe more easily and there are many things you can do to help yourself. 

Last reviewed: 
13 Feb 2017
  • Breathlessness in cancer patients - implications, management and challenges
    S Thomas and others
    European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2011 Dec;15(5):459-69

  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)
    Twycross R, Wilcock A and Toller S
    Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd, 2009

  • Non pharmacological interventions for breathlessness in advanced stages of malignant and non malignant diseases
    C Bausewein and others
    Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 2

  • The etiology and management of intractable breathlessness in patients with advanced cancer: a systematic review of pharmacological therapy
    S Booth and others
    Nature Clinical Practice Oncology, 2008, issue 5, pages 90-100

  • Breathlessness in cancer patients
    E Cachia and S Hjelmeland Ahmedzai
    European Journal of cancer, 2008, 44: pages 1116-1123

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