This is part 4 of our Breathless Series. In Part 1, we looked at some of the reasons for breathlessness in cancer patients. I also shared my husband’s experience with shortness of breath to the point he nearly died. In Part 2, we looked at medical approaches to breathlessness. Part 3 was a look at non-medical approaches to breathlessness, including breathing techniques and ways of controlling your environment to alleviate symptoms of breathlessness. In this final installment of the series, we will look at more non-medical ways to alleviate shortness of breath: breathing exercise.
Breathing is Medicine
Donna Wilson, RN, is a personal trainer at integrative medicine center at Memorial Sloan Ketterling Cancer Center in New York. She helps restore flexibility, reduce breathlessness and fatigue in cancer patients and survivors. In a recent webinar presented by the Lung Cancer Alliance, she shared some breathing exercises that can be used to strengthen your breathing.
It may sound counter-intuitive to use breathing to combat breathlessness. But, Donna says, “Breathing is medicine. Exercise is medicine.”
In part 3 of this series, we learned about the mechanics of breathing, as well as some ways we can breathe to bring immediate relief of breathlessness. Pursed-lip breathing is a great example of this.
We want more than short-term relief, though. We want long-term improvement in our breathing. Breathing exercises along with other exercises to strengthen the muscles in chest wall will help you to breathe most efficiently.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise
We talked about diaphragmatic breathing in the last post. Let’s get a little more detailed here.
If you place your fingers just below your rib cage and breathe, you will feel the diaphragm. Try it!
Breathing is the perfect exchange.
You breathe oxygen in (ideally through your nose):
Feel your diaphragm flex downward as your lungs fill with air.
Now, exhale carbon dioxide (though your mouth):
Feel your diaphragm flexes upward as the air is pushed out.
Relaxation Breath 4-8-8:
- For this breathing exercise, inhale through your nose for the count of four (This is a mental count, not actual seconds). This increases the amount of air you take in
- Hold that breath for the count of 8. This allows air to be distributed throughout your lungs
- Breathe out with pursed lips for a count of 8. This keeps airways open longer and prompts a larger inhalation through the nose
This fast breathing exercise uses “sniffles” to strengthen the diaphragm:
- Sit with your back upright.
- Place your hands on your knees, and your feet, flat on the floor.
- Close your mouth.
- Inhale for 2 counts through the nose.
- Exhale for 2 counts through the nose.
- Continue to breathe in this pattern.
In the beginning, you will keep this up for 15-30 seconds. Your goal is to eventually perform this for 60 seconds, once or twice each day.
“Healing Breath” Breathing Exercise
This is especially helpful for episodes of breathlessness from coughing, activity, or anxiety.
- In a sitting position, gently tilt your chin to your chest. This will relax you.
- Breathe out through lips in short bursts 10x
- When Neck muscles feel less stressed:
- Breathe in through the nose
- Breathe out through pursed lips 3x
- Then when your breathing normalizes:
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4
- Breathe out through your mouth making an “AH” sound for a count of 8.
To see this demonstrated, check out this video.
Coordinated Breathing Exercise
It’s so important as a cancer survivor to keep moving! Donna Wilson has a great video that addresses the difficulties cancer patients face as they resume movement after cancer treatment and/or being sedentary for quite some time. Check out her other videos as well!
Shortness of breath during exercise is normal. Your muscles contract during exercise. Because of this, you need to breathe faster to get more oxygen to the muscles. Modify what you are doing if necessary. Coordinate your breathing with exertion.
You always breathe in (unless you have a neurological injury).
People don’t always breathe out efficiently, though.
Pursed lip breathing creates back-pressure in your airways. This prevents your small airways from closing and makes breathing easier. Never hold your breath.
Breathing out is the key. The power is in the exhale. Whenever you do something that takes effort (push, pull, lift, bend over), breathe out. Coordinate breath with movement
Check out this tip sheet on coping with shortness of breath, from the Lung Cancer Alliance.
I would like to thank the Lung Cancer Alliance and Donna Wilson for allowing me to share this information with you (originally at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker).
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com
I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker