Management of dyspnea in palliative care
Dyspnea is a symptom commonly experienced by cancer patients that causes significant suffering, worsens throughout a patient’s disease trajectory, and can be more difficult to manage than other symptoms. Assessment of dyspnea is best accomplished by a subjective description; physiologic measures are only weakly correlated with the patient’s experience. It is important to consider a wide range of possible malignant and nonmalignant causes of dyspnea in cancer patients and to correct underlying causes where possible.
For patients with refractory dyspnea, opioids are a safe and effective treatment. Benzodiazepines can be considered, but the evidence for their use is weak. Supplemental oxygen is beneficial if patients are hypoxemic, or if they have concurrent chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nonpharmacologic strategies such as fan therapy, exercise programs, and pulmonary rehabilitation can also be beneficial. One important diagnosis to consider in all cancer patients is venous thromboembolism.
Prompt evaluation and treatment are vital to improving symptoms and outcomes for patients. Although dyspnea is common and potentially debilitating in cancer patients, it can be effectively managed with a structured approach to rule out reversible causes while concurrently treating the patient using appropriate therapeutic strategies.