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There are a number of different causes of breathlessness. It’s important that the cause is identified so that the most helpful treatment can be given.
This can be a primary lung cancer| (cancer that started in the lungs) or a secondary cancer that has spread to the lung from another part of the body. Treatment such as radiotherapy| or chemotherapy| may help shrink the tumour and relieve any breathlessness caused by the cancer. We have information about all types of cancer| and its treatment|.
This can happen if cancer cells irritate the membranes surrounding the lungs or the lining of the tummy. The fluid means there is less room for the lungs to expand. Both these conditions can be treated by draining the fluid. We have information about pleural effusion| and ascites|.
This can be due to the cancer or its treatment, including chemotherapy and radiotherapy. If the level of red blood cells in your blood is low, you may become very tired and breathless. Your doctors may recommend that you have a blood transfusion|.
If you develop a raised temperature (38°C or 100.4°F), a cough with green phlegm, or pain when you breathe, contact your doctor immediately as you may need antibiotics.
In advanced cancer, the muscles that help breathing can become weak, making breathing more difficult.
If pain is poorly controlled it can cause breathlessness so it’s important that any pain you have is well controlled.
This can cause sudden breathlessness and pain when you breathe. If you have these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.
Conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) cause breathlessness. Your doctor can advise you on the treatment you need.
If you want to stop smoking|, ask your nurse or doctor about help that’s available locally, such as stop smoking clinics.
Some cancer treatments can cause breathlessness:
Surgery for lung cancer may remove part, or all, of a lung. Many people are able to breathe well after they recover from surgery; however some people experience breathing problems.
Radiotherapy to the chest can cause inflammation of the lung (pnuemonitis), which can lead to breathlessness. This is usually a short-term side effect. However, some people who have intensive radiotherapy to the chest can develop hardening and thickening (fibrosis) of the lung, which can cause long-term breathlessness.
Some chemotherapy drugs can cause breathing problems.
Content last reviewed: 1 January 2011
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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