Shortness of Breath

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Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a common symptom of pleural mesothelioma. Tumor growth or fluid buildup may make it hard for the lungs to expand while breathing. Palliative therapies and lifestyle adjustments can ease breathing difficulty.

Even before a mesothelioma diagnosis, one particular symptom can be very distressing: Shortness of breath.

Shortness of breath and chest pain are the most common presenting symptoms at diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM).

According to Dr. Wintson Tan, associate professor of medicine with the Mayo Clinic division of hematology/oncology in Florida, at least one of these two symptoms occurs in 60 to 90 percent of patients.

Fortunately, even after diagnosis and the start of mesothelioma treatment, there are things you can do to breathe easier.

The medical term for shortness of breath is dyspnea. Regardless of the name, learning to cope with it is an important part of your mesothelioma care, can improve your quality of life and help you prepare for and better tolerate treatment.

How Mesothelioma Leads to Shortness of Breath

Mesothelioma contributes to shortness of breath in a number of ways.


Pain may limit how deeply a person can breathe. The lungs have very few pain receptors, but the pleura, which is the lining around the lungs, feels pain.

Mesothelioma cancer grows in the pleura. This is why lung cancer often does not cause pain with breathing, but mesothelioma does.

Mesothelioma tumors put pressure on pleural pain receptors. When you breathe, the pleura stretches and moves, contributing to pain around the tumors.

Peritoneal mesothelioma affects the lining around the abdominal cavity. The peritoneum does not surround the lungs, but it is near them. It is close to the diaphragm, too, an organ important for proper breathing.

Similar to the pleura, the peritoneum can move with each breath. When this movement is restricted by pain, shortness of breath may occur.

Fluid Buildup and Impaired Circulation

Mesothelioma can cause fluid buildup in and around the lungs. This puts pressure on the lungs, so they cannot expand properly. The result is difficulty breathing.

Pericardial mesothelioma affects the lining around the heart. This can lead to abnormal heartbeats, interfere with blood circulation, and less oxygen reaching the body. Less oxygen can cause shortness of breath.

Restricted Movement, Tissue Stiffness and Loss of Lung Volume

Mesothelioma tumors can restrict normal movement of the lungs, diaphragm, heart and other organs in the chest and abdominal cavities, contributing to breathing problems.

As mesothelioma develops, it can stiffen affected tissues. If lung, diaphragm and heart tissues lose normal flexibility, this contributes to difficulty catching your breath, too.

Any abnormal growth in the chest cavity can reduce the space into which the lungs usually expand. When lung volume is limited, breathing becomes more difficult.

Steps to Breathe Easier

Talk to Your Doctor

If your difficulty breathing has a treatable cause, your doctor can help. For example, if fluids are building up around your lungs, your doctor can drain the fluid to ease breathing.

Action items: If you are struggling to breathe, call your doctor for an immediate appointment. If your doctor is not available, head to the nearest urgent care or emergency room.

Keep a record of your symptoms. Share this with your doctor or nurse at every visit. You can identify patterns in how your symptoms are changing or affecting your everyday life.

Be Your Own No. 1 Fan

One of the easiest, quickest and least expensive ways to feel better is to direct a fan at your face.

Researchers have found a personal fan aimed toward the face can be as effective as oxygen therapy for reducing feelings of breathlessness.

According to a 2015 article published in Current Opinion in Supportive and Palliative Care, the hand-held fan should be considered as one of the first interventions to try in management plans for patients with chronic breathlessness, even if they have mildly decreased blood oxygen levels.

But a fan cannot replace oxygen. If your blood oxygen levels are significantly lower than normal, a fan will not address the problem. Your doctor can check your oxygen saturation level and prescribe oxygen therapy if needed.

Action Items: Ask a loved one or friend to pick up a few inexpensive, hand-held fans and batteries for each one. Keep one in each room of your house.

Talk to your doctor frequently about symptoms you’re experiencing. You may need oxygen therapy.

Engage Your Care Team to Function Better

Improving physical function lessens the distress of a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Respiratory therapists and nurses can work with you on gentle exercises and stretches designed to improve breathing and reduce shortness of breath.

Action Item:Ask for a referral to a respiratory therapist or pulmonary nurse specialist to address breathing problems right away.

Make Time for Better Breathing

If you feel rushed, this creates anxiety and stress, which can worsen breathing difficulties.

Action Item:Plan extra time to complete tasks. Use a cellphone or alarm to remind yourself to get ready for appointments 10 to 15 minutes earlier than usual.

Accept Help

Family and friends want to help when a loved one faces a medical challenge.

Action item:When friends ask, “What can I do to help?” take them up on the offer to fix meals, bring in the groceries, make a quick shopping trip for you, bring in the mail, pick up the kids from soccer practice or mow the lawn.

Eat with Breathing in Mind

Feeling overly full can make breathing challenging. More frequent mini-meals and snacks may work better for you than three large meals per day.

Liquids leave the stomach more quickly than solids. High-protein, high-calorie smoothies sipped slowly may be easier on your breathing than a steak and baked potato.

Action items: Keep snacks and high calorie meal replacement shakes on hand. Eat by the clock rather than hunger. Focus on having a few bites or sips at least once an hour throughout the day.

Sleep Easier

When you lay down on your back, this may worsen breathing. Being flat can significantly increase the effort required to take a breath.

Action items: Experiment with pillows, foam sleeping wedges or other ways to prop yourself up for sleep. Consider sleeping in a recliner chair if one is available. Try sleeping on the opposite side to see if this improves breathing.

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Oncology Medical Writer

Suzanne Dixon is a registered dietitian, epidemiologist and experienced medical writer. She has volunteered with the National Cancer Policy Forum, Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, American Institute for Cancer Research, American Society for Clinical Oncology, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The New York Times and Time Magazine also have reviewed her cancer patient resources.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at
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Last Modified May 24, 2019

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