Breathlessness is a common symptom of some cancers, such as lung cancer. 

What is breathlessness?

Breathlessness is the feeling of finding breathing hard or being short of breath. 

Breathlessness can be frustrating and frightening, but there are things you can do to help your breathing.

Managing breathlessness

How you can manage your breathlessness will depend on the cause. Talk to your treatment team if this is something you are having trouble with. 

There are several ways to ease your discomfort, such as:

  • breathing techniques
  • taking medication
  • relaxation exercises


Breathing techniques

When you feel breathless, it helps to be in a comfortable position that supports your upper chest muscles and allows your body to expand with your breathing. 

Here are four positions that may help your breathing. 

Position 1
Sit in a chair in an upright position, with your back supported, legs uncrossed and feet resting comfortably on the floor. Let your shoulders drop and feel heavy, with your arms resting softly in your lap. Keep your head upright.

Position 2
Sit in a chair and lean forward with your upper body. Have your legs uncrossed, feet on the floor and shoulders relaxed. Slowly move forward a little so that your elbows and lower arms are resting on your thighs, supporting your upper body. Keep your knees shoulder-width apart and let your chest relax when you lean forward.

Position 3
Stand and lean forward onto a secure surface (i.e. the kitchen bench). Let your arms and elbows rest on the surface so that you’re supporting the weight of your upper body. Keep your shoulders and chest relaxed by letting your forearms remain shoulder-width apart.

Position 4
Stand in an upright position and lean back against a secure surface. Let your arms drop to your sides and make your shoulders heavy and relaxed.

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A breathing exercise to try

In this exercise, you are going to focus on slow, controlled but natural breathing. It's up to you, but people sometimes find it easier to close their eyes during this exercise.

  • focus your attention on your breathing, feel the air coming into your body and then leaving again
  • breathe in slowly for a count of three
  • hold the breath for a count of three
  • breathe out slowly for a count of three - do not force or blow your breath out

As you breathe in, raise your shoulders and hold them for the count of three. As you breath out, relax your shoulders back down.

You might like to imagine warm water running down your back – gently soothing and softening the tension in your shoulders as you relax.

Repeat this exercise three to five times or until you feel relaxed.

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Action plan for breathlessness

When you are aware of your breathlessness, here are some things you can do:

  • tell yourself to stop and respond by pausing, breathe out slowly through your mouth
  • use positive, reassuring self-talk - “slow down, stay calm, it will be okay”
  • sigh slowly and gently letting out a soft sound while you drop your shoulders
  • focus on breathing out slowly and gently
  • put yourself in a position that supports your head and shoulders to relax comfortably 
  • remind yourself - “slow down, stay calm, it will be okay”
  • continue to breathe slowly and gently
  • focus your mind on a feeling or a place that helps you feel comfortable and relaxed 
  • when your breathing has settled, start to breathe in slowly through your nose and breathe out through your mouth
  • feel your breathing deep and low in your body
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Medication for breathlessness

Your doctor may give you drugs to help with breathlessness.

These may treat other conditions that are making you breathless, such as:

  • pneumonia (chest infection)
  • wheezing
  • fluid build-up in the lungs
  • anxiety

Let your treatment team if the medication is not working or you have any side effects, there may be something else you can try.


Some people with breathlessness may find at times that it causes them to feel anxious.

Finding it hard to breath can make you feel panicky. Anxiety may cause you to breathe too fast and to take shallow breaths from the top of your lungs rather than from your lower chest.

This may make you feel more breathless, which in turn can increase anxiety.

Learning and practising relaxation can help you control anxiety and breathe more easily when needed. 

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Last updated: December 22, 2022