Cancer-related breathing problems include dyspnea (difficult or laboured breathing) and breathlessness (feeling short of breath). Breathing problems affect 20%–40% of individuals diagnosed with cancer and are even more common in those with lung, breast, prostate and advanced cancer. The causes include some cancer treatments, anemia, infection, deconditioning, pre-existing lung disease and cancer itself.
The extent to which breathing problems affect ability to perform a job depends on the severity of the symptoms and the job demands. Physically demanding jobs may be more challenging for those with breathing problems.
What patients can do
Talk to the patient about the cause and management of their specific breathing problems and ask your patient what situations make breathing worse or better. Treat any underlying condition when possible. Medications may be helpful in reducing the severity of symptoms. When fluid in the lungs is causing the breathing problems, the fluid may be removed. Other strategies include:
- breathing techniques, such as pursed lip and abdominal breathing
- relaxation training
- positioning the body to breathe most easily
- conserving energy
- regular exercise as tolerated
There are several ways that jobs can be modified to accommodate breathing problems.
Modify work tasks and schedules:
- If the job requires a uniform, request alternative clothing options that do not restrict the chest or abdomen.
- Request flexible breaks where the patient can go outside for fresh air when needed.
- Communicate by instant messaging or a chat program instead of by telephone.
- Request to work from home in extreme weather (very humid, very cold).
Reduce physical exertion:
- Request tasks that are less physically demanding.
- Use electric tools to replace manual effort.
- Vary repetitive tasks with other duties.
- Arrange an assessment by a physical therapist or occupational therapist, who can recommend appropriate mobility aids to minimize energy expenditure.
- If the patient works standing up, request to be allowed to sit down when possible. Use a stand-lean chair or keep a rest chair nearby.
Modify the work environment:
- Relocate the workstation to an area with sufficient air purification.
- Use a portable humidifier or dehumidifier to produce comfortable air humidity.
- Request a fragrance- and smoke-free policy in the workplace.