Cancer-related breathing problems include dyspnea, which is difficult or laboured breathing, and breathlessness, a similar condition characterized by a feeling of shortness of breath. Breathing problems are present in 20%–40% of individuals diagnosed with cancer and are even more common in those with lung, breast1, prostate2 and advanced cancer3. The causes include some treatments4, anemia2, infection, deconditioning, pre-existing lung disease5 and cancer itself1.
The extent to which breathing problems affect your ability to perform your job depends on the severity of the symptoms you experience and the demands of your work. Physically demanding jobs may be more challenging for those with breathing problems.
What you can do
Speak to your healthcare team for advice about the cause and management of your specific breathing problems. Note the severity of your breathing difficulties and any situations that make your breathing worse or better. Treat any underlying condition when possible. Medications may be helpful in reducing the severity of your symptoms. When fluid in the lungs is causing the breathing problems, the fluid may be removed. Other strategies include:
- learning breathing techniques, such as pursed lip and abdominal breathing
- relaxation training
- learning how to position your body to breathe most easily
- conserving energy
- regular exercise as tolerated
Modify your work tasks and how you work:
- Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing. If your work requires a uniform, request alternative clothing options that do not restrict your chest or abdomen.
- Request flexible “fresh-air” breaks.
- Arrange for communication over instant messaging or a chat program instead of the telephone.
- Request to work from home in extreme weather (very humid, very cold).
- Reduce physical exertion:
- Do tasks that are less physically demanding.
- Use electric tools to replace manual effort.
- Reduce repetitive tasks; vary these tasks with other duties.
- Consider using a mobility aid such as a walker.
- Other mobility aids may also be helpful to minimize your energy expenditure. Assessment by a local therapist (physical therapist, occupational therapist) may be best to help you find the appropriate mobility aid.
- Work in a standing position? Sit down when you’re able to. Use a stand-lean chair if possible; if not, keep a rest chair nearby.
- Learn deep breathing techniques. Incorporate relaxation into your breaks—with or without an audio guide.
Modify your work environment:
- Relocate your workstation to an area with sufficient air purification.
- Optimize air humidity: consider a portable humidifier or dehumidifier for comfort.
- Request that your workplace abides by a fragrance- and smoke-free policy.