How to Breathe Easier With Lung Cancer

by Megan McMorris Health Writer

Until recently, it’s fair to say that breathing isn’t something most people gave a lot of thought to—it’s a reflexive behavior, like yawning or sneezing. Most of us open our mouths, pull in air, and push out carbon dioxide anywhere from 10 to 20 times every minute of the day without even being conscious of it. Leave it to a global pandemic to suddenly make conversations about breathing—with a mask, without a mask, indoors, outside—front and center at dinner tables across the U.S.

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Of course, if you have lung cancer, breathing is something that’s always on your mind. “In general, about 80 percent of lung cancer patients will experience some shortness of breath,” says Mark Dylewski, M.D., a thoracic and robotic surgeon at the Miami Cancer Institute. “This happens when the cancer has grown to the point where it’s causing complications with the lung.” Fluid build-up and low levels of red blood cells due to lung cancer also contribute to restricted airflow. Still, there are way to slow or minimize your difficulties with breathing. Start here.

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Breathing 101

Before we get into the breathing exercises, let’s take a minute to learn about the engine at the core of the process. Did you know that your lungs can hold about 6 liters of air? That’s equivalent to three large soda bottles—although most of us rarely make use of it all. “The average person uses only 15 percent of his lung capacity,” says Dr. Dylewski. Lung capacity declines with age starting around 35. If you’re battling lung cancer, the decline is even faster. That’s why you need exercises to help you maintain the capacity you have left.

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Breathing Technique: Pursed Lips

How to do it: Sit tall and breathe in through your nose, counting to three seconds. Then purse your lips as if you’re blowing air into a balloon and blow out for six seconds. Work up to 5-10 minutes, three to four times a day.

Why it works: Pursing your lips restricts the speed at which you exhale, and “by reducing the number of breaths in and out, you’re keeping your airways open longer,” says Los Angeles breathwork coach Rebecca Kordecki.

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Breathing Technique: Time Yourself

How to do it: Set a timer for a minute and see how many times you naturally breathe. “The average adult breathes about 12 times per minute,” says Kordecki. “Your goal is five to six times per minute, which will improve your airflow.”

Why it works: Measuring your inhales and exhales in seconds teaches you breath awareness. “People tend to be shallow breathers out of the habit, but you can train yourself out of that,” she says.

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Breathing Technique: Clear Your Throat

How to do it: Inhale for five seconds; hold for five seconds, then exhale forcefully out of your mouth. At the end of your exhale, cough on purpose. Repeat this cycle twice, several times a day.

Why it works: The additional force at the end of your exhale works your lungs just a little harder. Plus, “this allows your lungs to expand, so any mucus build-up gets dislodged during the cough part of this technique,” explains Kordecki.

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Breathing Technique: Diaphragm Breathing

How to do it: Lie on your back with one hand on your belly, the other on your chest. Inhale through your nose and feel your hand rising on your belly. Exhale through pursed lips for five seconds. Repeat, working up to 5-10 minutes.

Why it works: Most people breathe shallowly, meaning they don’t engage their full diaphragm, the muscle responsible for pulling air into your lungs. By watching—and feeling—your belly rise and fall, you can help ensure that you’re working the diaphragm muscle to its max.

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Breathing Technique: Box Breathing

How to do it: Inhale through your nose for four seconds. Hold your breath in for four seconds. Exhale through your nose for four seconds. Hold the breath out for four seconds. Work up to 5-10 minutes, several times a day.

Why it works: The concept of a breathing “box” that can draw air in or out is a useful mental image for the idea of filling your lungs to capacity. You are strengthening your breathing muscles on both the inhale and exhale part of this exercise.

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Breathing Top Tip: Exercise Your Lungs

Along with breath-specific exercises, general cardio activity is an essential part of maintaining your lung capacity if you have cancer (or even if you don’t!). “I encourage my patients to do a daily exercise routine for 20 minutes,” says Dr. Dylewski. “It helps stimulate the heart and lungs to improve blood flow throughout your body, and you can condition your lungs to become more efficient in gas exchange, just like you can condition your heart to become more efficient.”

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Breathing Top Tip: Don’t Smoke

If you have lung cancer, odds are high that you were a smoker at some point during your life. You can’t change the past, but your future is highly dependent on the choices you make right now. The more you smoke, the worse your lung capacity will get, and the faster your lung cancer will most likely progress. “Smoking is truly the worst thing you can do for yourself,” says Dr. Dylewski. Talk with you doctor, a counselor, or find support through the American Cancer Society. You can do it!

Meet Our Writer
Megan McMorris