Shortness of Breath or Dyspnea

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2019

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 have dyspnea.

Common symptoms of dyspnea include:

  • Uncomfortable breathing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Not being able to get enough air

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

Finding the cause of shortness of breath

A person may have 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. But tell your health care team right away if you have any of these symptoms or if they get worse. Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called palliative care or supportive care.

To learn more about your symptoms, your health care team will:

  • Review your medical history

  • Ask you to describe your symptoms and what makes them worse

  • Ask you to rate your symptoms on a scale

Causes of shortness of breath

Dyspnea may be caused by a tumor or another condition related to cancer. But many of these causes can be treated. 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. Your doctor may also recommend the following to help relieve your 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 so that you are nearly sitting

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

  • Taking pain medications, such as morphine, that help control the central nervous system

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

  • Doing strength and conditioning exercises, physical therapy, or pulmonary rehabilitation.

Related Resources

When to Call the Doctor During Cancer Treatment

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Dyspnea During Advanced Cancer