Some people report difficulty breathing, an inability to get enough oxygen or a feeling of suffocation (also called shortness of breath or dyspnoea). Whatever it feels like, trouble breathing can be a frightening and debilitating symptom for people with advanced cancer and those around them.

What may help

Talk to your Doctor

Finding out why you are having breathing problems is the first step towards treatment. For instance, a fluid build-up around the lungs may be drained, while oxygen or certain medicines may work against other causes.

Write down what you want to tell you doctor:

  • What brings on your shortness of breath?
  • What are the particular activities that trigger your shortness of breath?
  • What helps you manage shortness of breath?
  • Have you experienced shortness of breath before?

Write down what you want to ask your doctor:

  • What can be done for shortness of breath?
  • When is shortness of breath an emergency?

Non-medical help

Depending on what is causing your breathlessness, you may find some relief in:

  • Increasing the air circulation and, where possible, lowering the temperature and humidity.
  • Finding a position that is comfortable for you. Some people find it useful to sit in a chair and lean forward with their arms and upper body supported on a table.
  • Focusing on your breathing pattern: Take slow even breaths. When you breathe out, put your lips together, like slowly blowing out a candle (also called pursed lip breathing).
  • Attempting to relax – using music, deep breathing, guided imagery or meditation, for example.
  • Seeking emotional support and reassurance from those around you and health professionals.


If you are experiencing breathlessness, turning on a fan or opening windows may help you feel as though you are taking in more air.

Plan your activities 

  • If you are doing an activity and become short of breath, you should stop the activity and rest.
  • Rest before and between doing activities that take extra energy.


If your shortness of breath is accompanied by any chest pain, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Last updated 30 August 2015