Lung Cancer Breathing Techniques to Manage Shortness of Breath

As a lung cancer patient, you probably know too well what shortness of breath feels like – either due to the cancer itself or any treatments that may have damaged your lungs. But with a few simple lung cancer breathing techniques, you can help yourself take deeper, fuller breaths.

The strong, deliberate, intentional breathing used in lung cancer breathing techniques is important for everyone, but especially for those whose lungs have been compromised by cancer.

Breath Anatomy

Before diving into specific breathing techniques for lung cancer, here is some anatomical background on why breath-work is important:

The trachea (or “windpipe”) branches like a tree into the two lungs before subdividing further and further into tiny bronchioles that reach the alveoli.  Alveoli are microscopic sacs surrounded by capillaries–where the gas exchange of the lungs takes place.  The total surface area of all alveoli together is around 1000 square feet!  The alveoli “deflate” when air is exhaled, and expand, like tiny balloons, during inhalation.

See this YouTube video for a full zoom-in animation.

Graphic showing alveoli in the lungs of someone with cancer

When you inhale, the diaphragm (the large muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen) moves downward, massaging all the abdominal organs (and moving the lymph!), while simultaneously creating an expansion and partial vacuum in the chest cavity.  This draws air into the lungs.  An exhale pushes it back out again.

“Chest breathing” uses the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) to expand the chest, but this is more work for less result than “abdominal breathing” via the diaphragm.  (If you’ve ever been in a choir or chorale, or a yoga class, this should all be familiar territory.)

Oxygen is always moving from the inhaled breath into the capillaries, and carbon dioxide is always moving the other direction and being exhaled.  In the average adult, a “resting breath” moves about 0.5 liter of air in and out of the lungs.  However, the deepest possible inhaling and exhaling can move closer to 4 liters of air.

Breathing Techniques for Lung Cancer Recovery

Like any muscle or other part of the body, the lungs and diaphragm are designed to adapt to changing circumstances.  Lung capacity can be increased through practice and usage, even if you have lung cancer.

The average male has a total lung capacity around 6 liters; but Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s is around 12 liters.  Some of that is probably genetics… but most is probably training!

Woman meditating and breathing deeply to oxygenate her blood

Aerobic exercise and “exertion” breathing may not be the best choice for you right now, but there are plenty of exercises that can promote healing, energy, and calm.  Here are a few:

Slow Deep Breathing for Oxygenation

Many alternative/yoga/mindfulness resources promote a variety of deep-breathing exercises.  And, there are solid physiological reasons for why “good posture” and “good breathing” are, in fact, good for you!  One study on slow, deep breathing that found deep breathing increased blood oxygenation by about 8% in a cohort of lowlanders staying at high altitude (15,000 feet) and performing the recommended exercises.

How to Perform Intentional Deep Breathing (Ujjayi)

  • Remove any tight belts or other constricting garments.
  • Consider going outside, or setting up an essential oil diffuser, for extra benefit.  At minimum, remove anything from your space that is producing an offensive smell or that you know to be toxic.  Aim for a moderate ambient temperature as well.
  • While sitting or standing comfortably, take a long, deep breath in through the nose, expanding your nasal cavities and sinuses so the breath is “noisy.”
  • Exhale with mouth open and throat slightly closed.
  • Allow each breath to adjust, expand, and lengthen your posture–shoulders up and back, spine tall and straight, chest up.
  • Establish a regular breath pattern over the course of ten breaths or so.  If it helps, count up to eight on the inhale, (optionally) hold while you count up to sixteen, and then count all the way down to one on the exhale.
  • Visualize the individual alveoli expelling all of their stale air, and then expanding to their fullest extent with fresh oxygen.
  • The quality of this type of breath may be judged by its sound.  When done as intended, it sounds like the ocean (or, if you prefer, like Darth Vader).

Alternate Nostril Breathing for Stress Reduction

The reasons are not entirely understood, but this study demonstrated that “alternate nostril breathing” helped reduce blood glucose, salivary cortisol (a stress hormone), blood pressure, and heart rate.

Since the body does not heal well in a sympathetic (“fight or flight”) state, but rather in a parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) state, it makes sense that anything which reduces stress and encourages relaxation will also promote healing and recovery.  Many practitioners assert that this technique balances the nervous system from one side of the body to the other, helps alleviate headaches and stress, and increases mindfulness.

How to Perform Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)

  • As in the exercise above–get comfortable.
  • Without pinching the nose, seal the left nostril with the pad of the ring finger of your right hand.
  • Breathe in, slow and deeply, through the right nostril.
  • Seal the right nostril with the pad of the right thumb.
  • Exhale through the left nostril, then inhale.
  • After each inhalation, switch fingers/nostrils.
  • Do ten or fifteen switches and then take a few deep breaths with both nostrils to finish.
  • Once you are comfortable with the pattern, further challenge your brain by scanning downwards from head to heels, locating any tense muscles or joints and consciously relaxing them.  Keep the breath at the same slow, controlled pace.
  • Do this practice once a day or more often as needed.

For a lengthier walkthrough, see this YouTube video or similar.

“Breath Play” for Core Muscle Strengthening

This YouTube video (and others like it) offer multiple specific techniques for training the breathing mechanisms of the body.  Depending on your perspective, these can be seen as “therapies” or “exercises,” but in truth, if you saw a group of kids doing all of these activities, you would probably call it “play.”  So: follow the instructions here, but maybe include a grandkid or some other child and make it a “breathing contest.”  Buying an inexpensive three-ball spirometer, and challenging yourself (& family) with it, works right along with this concept.

Here’s what you should focus on:

  • Anything that provides resistance to your breath–blowing up a balloon, breathing through one nostril only, deliberate coughing, anything–will inevitably work to strengthen your diaphragm and other breathing muscles.  (A strong diaphragm also reduces the risk of things like acid reflux and hiatal hernia, so there are multiple benefits.)
  • Anything that causes you to focus intentionally on your breathing will result in deeper, more effective, oxygenating breaths and a calmer state of body and mind.

Anything that is fun, you will want to continue!  Also it will create endorphins and other happy/healthy neurotransmitters and hormones.

Lung Cancer Breathing Techniques for Your Health

Deep breathing techniques offer scientifically verifiable benefits to your health. So relax, get comfortable, and take the time to learn some of them and let them do their work.

Your ORW therapist will equip you with lung cancer breathing techniques – tailored for your specific needs – to aid you in finding the optimal recovery path from lung cancer and its treatments.  Please click here to learn more about our services and schedule a free consultation today.