Cancer J. 2006 Sep-Oct;12(5):365-73. doi: 10.1097/00130404-200609000-00006.


Dyspnea, defined as uncomfortable or labored breathing, is a common and often devastating cause of distress for patients and their caregivers with advanced cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. The mechanism by which dyspnea develops is not fully understood, but it involves integration of the central respiratory complex with the sensory (perceptual) cortex. The gold standard of diagnosis is patient self-report. Careful assessment should be undertaken to identify reversible existing causes. Systemic opioids are the first-line therapy for symptomatic management, along with other general comfort measures (positioning, cool air, calming environment). Medical or surgical management can be directed toward underlying causes. Advanced care planning should include discussions concerning the burdens and benefits of medical/surgical management of underlying causes of dyspnea to more effectively direct goals of care. This article reviews current literature on dyspnea, with a focus on items published since 2000.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Anxiety Agents / therapeutic use
  • Dyspnea / diagnosis
  • Dyspnea / etiology
  • Dyspnea / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Narcotics / therapeutic use
  • Neoplasms / complications*
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Oxygen / therapeutic use


  • Anti-Anxiety Agents
  • Narcotics
  • Oxygen