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Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 1996 Feb;10(1):157-71.

Management of dyspnea and cough in patients with cancer.

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University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.


The understanding and treatment of dyspnea in the cancer patient are where the science of pain management was 15 or 20 years ago. Very few studies have examined the pathophysiologic mechanisms that cause dyspnea in cancer patients, and few investigators have evaluated therapeutic strategies to control dyspnea in this patient group. The optimal therapy for dyspnea is treatment of the underlying cause. When this is not possible, opioids and phenothiazines provide effective symptomatic relief in most cases, but many unanswered questions remain. Are these the optimal drugs, and what are their optimal doses? What are the effects of chronic dosing? Which is the best route of administration? How serious are the risks of respiratory depression? A clear consensus supports the aggressive treatment of pain in terminally ill cancer patients, even if death is hastened as an unintended consequence. No such position has yet been reached in the management of dyspnea in the same population. As a result, dyspnea is addressed only very late in the course of the disease, perhaps reducing the patient's quality of life and function at earlier stages and resulting in a very small "therapeutic window" in the terminal phase. Clearly, a need exists for more research to determine the most effective management of this common and very distressing symptom.

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