Ovarian Cancer Symptoms: Shortness of Breath

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2021

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be hard to narrow down. They tend to be general and not specific to the condition. This may explain why the disease is not typically caught in its early stages. Many of the symptoms of ovarian cancer can also be seen in other conditions, including many noncancerous issues.

Is shortness of breath a symptom of ovarian cancer?

Shortness of breath can be a symptom of ovarian cancer, especially advanced ovarian cancer. When people have trouble breathing or shortness of breath, the body may not be getting enough oxygen. This may be because either the lungs cannot get enough air or there is not enough oxygen in the body in the bloodstream.1

Shortness of breath can have a big impact on quality of life. It can make everyday functioning challenging and contribute to feelings of distress and anxiety.2

If you have a sudden onset of shortness of breath, seek immediate medical care. If you start to notice that over a period of time you have found it harder to breathe or have shortness of breath, call your doctor. It is important to find out the underlying cause so you can get the right treatment.

Why does ovarian cancer cause shortness of breath?

People with advanced cancer, including advanced ovarian cancer, often may have shortness of breath. You may feel unable to get a “good breath,” have shallow breathing, or have trouble catching your breath. You may have a faster heartbeat, wheezing, or have cold or clammy skin.3

Shortness of breath in advanced cancer can have various causes, including:2,3

  • Fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Infection
  • Ascites (fluid building up in the abdomen)
  • Tumors pressing on lungs or chest
  • Anemia or changes in blood counts
  • Blocked airway
  • Heart problems from chemotherapy
  • Weakened breathing muscles
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Poor nutrition

Treating shortness of breath in ovarian cancer

Treatment for shortness of breath will be determined by what is causing it. If you have an infection, your doctor will likely give you medicine to treat it. If the cause is abdominal ascites (or fluid around the lungs), the fluid may be drained. If tumors are pressing on organs and causing shortness of breath, your treatment team may decide to surgically remove them or use radiation to shrink them to try and improve symptoms.2

Things you can do to help ease shortness of breath

There are some other things you can do at home to help ease any shortness of breath you might feel. These can include:2

  • Wear loose-fitting tops and pants, with nothing tight on the chest and waist
  • Stay hydrated, since dehydration can increase breathlessness (check with your doctor if you have a fluid intake restriction)
  • Use a handheld fan for airflow near your face, or open a window
  • Sit down often throughout the day
  • Talk with your doctor about different breathing techniques you can do at home
  • Use a walker when running errands to lean on for extra support, since the leaning and change of position may also help with breathing

If nothing helps, your doctor might suggest supplemental oxygen to help you breathe easier. Together, you and your doctor can help find solutions to help ease any discomfort.

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