Why Does Colon Cancer Cause Shortness of Breath?

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The main symptoms of colon cancer include change in bowel movement, pain (abdominal or/and pelvic pain), and blood found in the stool. Shortness of breath is not the main symptom of this cancer. However in a few cases, some patients can have it. There are some possible ways of why and how colon cancer can cause it.

Shortness of breath, what actually is it?

image_illustration356It occurs when we are not taking in enough O2 (oxygen), as a result the lungs try to draw in more air to meet the body needs.

In normal scenario of breathing, you use the diaphragm (a large sheet of muscles located between your abdomen and chest cavity) and muscles surrounding the ribs. When you take a breath, your diaphragm tightens up & pulls downwards.

The muscles around the ribs also pull the ribcage up & out. And then the lungs expand. As a result, there will be more space in the chest so thus oxygen will flow more easily into the body.

But in shortness of breath, all of these mechanisms are usually not enough. The body may also need to use muscles in the upper chest or even shoulders to help you breathe. But in this way, your breathing is not effective and you can drain more energy.

Lack of oxygen and more energy you spend just for breathing are a lot to cope with! The problem can significantly give impact on your daily routines. Even you could be too breathless for simply tasks such as cooking, bathing or even taking a mouthful of food.

Being short of breath can be attributed by numerous health conditions. The bad news, sometime it links to serious condition such as warning sign of heart attack. Therefore, let your healthcare provide knows if you have it!

Why and how does colon cancer cause shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath is pretty common in patients with cancer. Even about 50-70 percent of people with cancer have it at some point during their illness. And mostly, it is found in patients with lung cancer.

How about in colon cancer? Sometime it also can lead to this symptom. And this can occur for some different reasons.


Red blood cells are essential elements in the blood to help bind and carry oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin is a part of red blood cell that plays a key role to bind oxygen.

Bone marrow is the place where red blood cells are produced in the body. Some conditions can affect bone marrow and cause anemia, a condition of when you have lack of red blood cells (hemoglobin).

If you have too low hemoglobin or red blood cells, the oxygen supply distributed to cells of the body can be affected, too. In fact anemia is associated with weakness and tiredness since your blood is carrying poor oxygen. It also can make you become breathless.

Anemia is pretty common in people with colon cancer. See also how colon cancer can lead to anemia in this post!

Advanced stage of colon cancer

Breathless problem related to cancer is most likely to be found in patients with primary lung cancer and secondary lung cancer (cancer in the lungs that comes from other parts of the body).

At advanced stage, colon cancer can spread to the lung. Even lungs are the second common place where it spreads. The first common distinct organ where it spreads is liver. For in-depth information about metastasis of colon cancer (a condition of when cancer has spread at advanced stage), see this article!

Cancer in the lungs can put extra pressure on the airways. This can narrow the tubes that carry air, and block the air circulation (including oxygen) into the lungs. As a result, you will be more difficult to take a breath.

If cancer has affected the outer covering of the lungs, it’s pretty common for fluid to collect. The excess fluid accumulation between pleura and plural membranes (two sheets of tissue that cover the lungs) can cause a condition called pleural effusion that can inhibit your lungs to expand properly when you take a breath. And this can make breathing more difficult.

Moreover, there is also a condition called SVCO (superior vena cava obstruction). It is associated with a blockage in the major (larger) blood vessels in the neck, stopping the blood going back to the heart from arms & head.

SVCO can lead to swelling in the trachea (around your windpipe), making you short of breath. And cancer in the lungs can cause SVCO.

Side effect of some cancer treatments

The common treatment options for colon cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Unfortunately some of these treatments could carry the risk of breathless.

Surgery, depending on which part of the body removed during surgery, can affect the way of how you take a breath. Liver and lungs are common sites where colon cancer spreads at its advanced stage, as noted before.

If cancer does have spread to the lungs, surgery still can be one of treatment options – particularly true if there is only a single small area affected in the lung so thus it can be removed completely with surgery. However after surgery, you may have shortness of breath problem especially if it has removed your lobectomy or all of one of your lungs.

But the outlook after surgery also can vary. If you had breathless problem before surgery, it may persist afterwards. However the overall health of your lungs can play a key role. Even though a part of your lungs has been removed, you may still be able to breathe well (quite normally) if the lung you have left is healthy.

Chemotherapy is used to help control the growth of cancer cells and even it is also intended to help kill them. But it carries some side effects, too. Some chemo medicines may cause inflammation in the lungs, and this can contribute to cause feeling of breathless.

Radiation therapy could carry the risk of making breathing difficult, too. There is a chance for the radiation to cause inflammation or scarring of the lung tissue. In fact lungs are quite sensitive, including to radiation.

Moreover, in rare cases some cancer treatments can affect the bone marrow, the place where white blood cells are produced. As well we know that white blood cells play a key role to help fight against infection. If you have them too low, you are at high risk for infection, including chest infection.

Chest infection will have an effect on the way of how you breathe. In serious case, it can cause pneumonia and your breathing will be more difficult.

Your doctor should have completely understood about the side effect of each treatment. In general, the decision of using particular treatment for colon cancer should outweigh the potential risks.

If your treatment does cause side effect, there is usually an option to cope. Talk to your doctor for more advice if you worry about certain side effect of cancer treatment you are taking!

Tips for coping

Shortness of breath related to any cancer (including colon cancer) should be concerned as well. Depending on the cause, some medicines are available for coping.

Some lifestyle measures can help, too. These include:


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