Shortness of Breath or Dyspnea

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2016

Dyspnea is a feeling of breathlessness. Many people with advanced cancer may experience it. People with earlier-stage cancers who have other conditions that affect the heart or lungs, such as a blood clot, may also experience dyspnea. It is important to tell your doctor right away about sudden or worsening symptoms. Common symptoms of dyspnea include:

  • Uncomfortable breathing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Inability to get enough air

  • A feeling of smothering, tightness, drowning, or suffocation

A person may experience dyspnea even though the actual levels of oxygen are within a normal range. It is important to understand that people do not suffocate or die from dyspnea.

Finding the cause of shortness of breath

To learn more about your symptoms, your doctor will review your medical history. He or she will ask you to describe your symptoms and what makes the symptoms worse. He or she may also ask you to rate your symptoms on a scale.

Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called symptom management or palliative care. Talk with your health care team about any symptoms you experience and any change in symptoms.

Causes of shortness of breath

Dyspnea may be caused by a tumor or another condition related to cancer. But many of these causes are treatable. Some common causes of dyspnea include:

Treating shortness of breath

An important step in managing dyspnea is treating the cause, such as the tumor or a blood clot. The doctor may also recommend the following to help relieve dyspnea symptoms:

  • Receiving extra oxygen

  • Sitting in front of a fan

  • Breathing cooler air by lowering the temperature in a room

  • Breathing cleaner air by opening a window, using a humidifier, or getting rid of smoke and pet dander

  • Getting a sense of open space by seeing a view of the outside, opening windows, or being in an empty room

  • Keeping your head lifted, for example, by using pillows to raise your head so that you are nearly sitting

  • Practicing techniques that take your focus away from the problem, such as relaxation techniques and meditation

  • Taking pain medications, such as morphine, that act on the central nervous system

  • Taking anti-anxiety drugs to manage the pain and anxiety of dyspnea

More Information

When to Call the Doctor During Cancer Treatment

Side Effects

Additional Resource

National Cancer Institute: Dyspnea During Advanced Cancer