Taking a Deep Breath with Lung Cancer
Last updated: March 2020
One of the anomalies of lung cancer is that for many patients, they never experience any symptoms to clue them into their predicament. As the disease becomes more advanced, of course, that may change. But depending upon the treatment and the patient's response, lung cancer can have very different effects on how a patient breathes. Some may go through years of treatment without ever noticing a difference in how their lungs feel. Others might develop a chronic cough, rely on portable oxygen, or otherwise feel that their breathing is compromised. But no matter where the patient is on this wide spectrum of possibilities, we can all benefit from an awareness of our own breathing.
Not everyone has breathing symptoms
A standard check-up from an oncologist will generally include a measure of blood oxygen levels. Even with a stage IV diagnosis and multiple tumors in the lungs, it is possible to sound clear through a stethoscope and register between 97% and 100% oxygenation levels. Such is the disparity amongst patients that staging alone does not offer an accurate indication of how a patient will likely have his or her breathing affected.
Early stage lung cancer patients are much more likely to have strong long-term outcomes through the complete removal of their tumors. A lobectomy, the surgical removal of a portion of the lung, can completely cure a lung cancer patient if it is performed early enough and the cancer has not spread at all. While such a treatment might be preferable in that the patient may live decades longer without further medical intervention, it also brings with it another set of hardships.
Changes in breathing after surgery
Depending on how much lung is removed, the patient might never notice a huge difference in respiratory function, or might be perennially short of breath. And there are dangers with viral illness or bacterial infection because the lungs will be more susceptible. A case of pneumonia, a danger even to a healthy person with the strongest of lungs, can rapidly undo a patient who has only a partial lung remaining. For this reason, patients who have lobectomies must be extra vigilant with regard to their respiratory system.
For those of us with disease that has spread, being aware of our breathing can be a way to stay on top of the best course of treatment. With metastatic cancer, things can shift very quickly when a treatment stops being effective. A slow-growing cancer that had been kept in check by chemotherapy or targeted drugs might become abruptly aggressive. The onset of a persistent cough or a sudden shortness of breath might indicate that something has changed, even if the next scan is still a month or two away.
Benefits of mindful breathing
But taking a deep breath can have other positive ramifications for a cancer patient, beyond merely helping to inventory how the lungs are working. Dealing with anxiety and stress are parts of a cancer patient's daily life. Sitting for a few moments and getting emotionally centered can make a huge difference with how we function. Pausing to do breathing exercises may fight depression, leading to a greater sense of well-being. It may also help with clarity of thought (something that many of us struggle with during bouts of "chemo-brain") as the brain gets a healthy dose of oxygen.
Whether for inventorying bodily function or resetting one's emotional core, taking the time to sit and inhale deeply can become an important part of a lung cancer patient's routine. It is an activity that can be performed virtually anywhere. And at that moment, the notions of healthy body and healthy mind become the same thing. That can have a resoundingly powerful effect. Breathe in. Pause. Exhale. Repeat.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
Beside manner matters! What has your experience been?