Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea), ASCO's curriculum

This section has been reviewed and approved by the PLWC Editorial Board, 05/05

Dyspnea, or breathlessness, is a condition experienced by 20% to 90% of people with advanced cancer. It can also occur in those with other conditions of the heart or lungs. Common symptoms of dyspnea include the following:

  • Uncomfortable breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Inability to get enough air
  • A feeling of smothering, drowning, or suffocation

A person may experience dyspnea even though the actual levels of oxygen are within a normal range. People do not die or suffocate from dyspnea.


Dyspnea can have many causes, from the tumor itself or from other conditions related to cancer. Many of these causes are treatable. Some common causes of dyspnea include the following:

  • Airway obstruction by a tumor or other cause
  • Anxiety
  • Bronchospasm (narrowing airways)
  • Hypoxemia (shortage of oxygen in blood)
  • Gathering of fluid in the areas around the heart or lungs
  • Pneumonia
  • Radiation pneumonitis (inflammation of lungs after radiation treatment)
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Stress


To diagnose dyspnea, the doctor will review your medical history and ask you to report your symptoms and any activities or other medical conditions that make the symptoms worse. The doctor may also ask you to rate your symptoms on a scale.


Treatment of dyspnea begins with treating the underlying cause, such as the tumor. The following may also help to relieve the symptoms of dyspnea:

  • Receiving extra oxygen (sitting near cool air in front of a fan may be just as effective as extra oxygen)
  • Taking opioid medications
  • Taking anti-anxiety drugs can help relieve symptoms if you also have anxiety or pain, but are not helpful for treating dyspnea alone.
  • Breathing cleaner, cooler air. Lowering the temperature in a room, opening a window, using a humidifier, and getting rid of smoke and pet dander may make breathing easier.
  • Being in an open space, including opening windows, seeing a view of the outside, and being in an uncrowded room may help breathing seem easier.
  • Keeping your head lifted. If you are in bed, raise your head up on pillows so you are close to sitting up.
  • Practicing distraction and relaxation techniques

More Information

PLWC: Managing Side Effects Dyspnea

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