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Techniques for Easier Breathing

CancerWise - February 2009


By Bayan Raji

We are told stress relief is a few deep lungfuls of air away, but for many cancer patients deep, relaxing breaths aren’t easy to come by.

M. D. Anderson’s Department of Rehabilitation Services offers training in breathing techniques, in conjunction with physical therapy, to help patients use their lung capacity to breathe easier and in a more relaxed manner.

Physical Therapy Supervisor Janet Scheetz says breathing practices can be helpful to anyone.

They are especially beneficial for patients with:

  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Emphysema
  • Asthma
  • Fibrosis (scarring) or fluid buildup in the lungs caused by radiation treatment

Work on perfecting posture

One of the most common problems is incorrect breathing posture. Patients with ineffective breathing patterns often adopt poor posture, further reducing their lung capacity.

“When you have difficulty breathing, it is often reflected in your posture,” Scheetz says. “We encourage patients to practice proper posture while sitting, standing and walking: Keep the back straight and the shoulders relaxed.”

Scheetz says she teaches patients several methods to help expel air from the lungs and bring enough air back in. These methods can be used when a person feels breathless or just wants to relax.

Some of the most common techniques are:

Diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Breathe in deeply through the nose
  • Instead of moving shoulders up or down, push the belly out
  • Pause for one second
  • Breathe out through the nose, sucking the belly back in

The upper chest should remain still because the breathing is taking place through the diaphragm. Don’t breathe too deeply for too long because it can cause dizziness.

Pursed-lip breathing:

  • Sit in a chair with a straight back
  • Relax the neck and shoulder muscles
  • Breathe in slowly through the nose for two seconds with the mouth closed
  • Pucker lips as if to whistle
  • Slowly breathe out while counting to four
  • Do not forcefully exhale

Controlled coughing:

  • Sit in a chair with a straight back and place feet flat on the floor
  • Cross the arms in front or wrap a sheet around stomach and hold the ends
  • Take slow, deep breaths through the nose and hold for two counts
  • Lean forward slightly
  • Use arms to softly push on stomach while breathing out
  • Perform two short coughs, but no more
  • Rest and repeat

This method can be used when a person has repeated coughing fits that may create breathlessness and not fully clear the lungs.

Proper breathing improves quality of life

Patients are asked to determine “perceived breathlessness” while they perform physical tasks, such as walking, performing daily activities or exercising.

Perceived breathlessness is the severity of breathlessness during physical activity. This measurement helps determine when patients should use the breathing practices at home.

The breathing therapy process is geared toward patients’ level of comfort. They are encouraged to share their levels of perceived breathlessness to prevent overexertion.

“We’re trying to help patients find out what they can do safely, efficiently and effectively so that they achieve the most benefit from what they are doing,” Scheetz says.

Proper breathing enables patients to have a better quality of life and lets them do more of the things they enjoy, Scheetz says. But she adds people need to know their limits and not overexert themselves during everyday physical activity.

Scheetz says step-by-step increases in physical activity and the use of breathing techniques help patients feel comfortable while being active at home.

M. D. Anderson resources: 


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center