Breathlessness in cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: using a qualitative approach to describe the experience of patients and carers

Palliat Support Care. 2003 Dec;1(4):337-44. doi: 10.1017/s1478951503030499.


Objective: To investigate and document the effects of breathlessness on the everyday lives of patients with cancer and COPD and their carers. This subject has been little researched, although dyspnoea is recognized as a disabling, distressing symptom. The number of breathless people is increasing as patients with all types of cardio-respiratory disease live longer.

Methods: Patients with severe COPD and cancer and their carers were interviewed at home using a semistructured format to record their perceptions of the impact of breathlessness, the help they had received from medical and caring services, and their ideas on how these could be improved.

Results: 10 patients with COPD (6 male) and 10 with cancer (6 male) and their spouses were interviewed. All patients found breathlessness frightening, disabling, and restricting. Patients developed a stoical, philosophical approach in order to live with dyspnoea and the difficulties it imposed: this was also an important way of reducing the emotional impact of breathlessness. Patients' spouses suffered significantly, experiencing severe anxiety and helplessness as they witnessed their partners' suffering and felt powerless to reduce it. The restrictions imposed by breathlessness affected their lives profoundly. Support of all kinds, practical, medical, and psychosocial was highly valued but was provided inconsistently and sporadically. Where help was given it came most frequently from general practitioners (GPs, family physicians) and specialist respiratory nurses.

Significance of results: This study is the first to document the psychosocial needs of carers, which are not adequately recognized or addressed at present. Patients and carers may feel most isolated and need support outside the working hours of most services and future provision needs to reflect this. Patients with cancer experience a more rapid onset of breathlessness. More clinicians need to be educated in the management of chronic breathlessness so known helpful strategies are more widely employed.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Aged
  • Caregivers* / psychology
  • Dyspnea / etiology*
  • Dyspnea / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / complications*
  • Lung Neoplasms / psychology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / complications*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / psychology