Ask an Expert: Shortness of breath following lung cancer surgery

Q: "I was diagnosed with lung cancer six months ago and underwent surgery as part of my treatment. Since then I find myself getting short of breath very easily. Will this go away with time?"
Answer from John R. Handy, Jr., M.D., co-director of Providence Thoracic Oncology Program and director of Providence Thoracic Surgery Program

Shortness of breath affects many people following lung cancer surgery and is frustrating when it lingers. The extent to which it goes away varies from person to person, depending on:
  • Time needed for chest wall to heal. The chest wall, which normally pumps air into the lungs, is opened during the normal course of lung cancer surgery. The time needed for the chest wall to heal usually ranges from six to nine months.
  • Lung health prior to surgery. Many people going into this surgery already have some lung damage due to the progression of cancer or emphysema. Breathing difficulties brought on by such damage are often aggravated by surgery.
  • The extent of the surgery. Depending on where cancer is located in a patient’s body, a surgeon may need to remove an entire lung, a single lobe of one lung, or just a small section of lung tissue. The location and function of the tissue removed during surgery can affect long-term breathing ability.
There are some things you can do to help minimize shortness of breath following surgery. The first is to stop smoking if you have not already done so. The second is to take part in a gradually increasing exercise program, which could include walking or pool exercises. Your primary care physician or pulmonologist can help design a physical conditioning program around your individual needs and goals.

November 2003

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