Episodic breathlessness with and without background dyspnea in advanced cancer patients admitted to an acute supportive care unit

Vincenzo Restivo, Alessandra Casuccio, Claudio Adile, Sebastiano Mercadante, Giuseppe Bonanno, Patrizia Ferrera

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aim: To characterize episodic breathlessness (EB) in patients with advanced cancer, and to determine factors influencing its clinical appearance. Methods: A consecutive sample of advanced cancer patients admitted to an acute palliative care unit was surveyed. Continuous dyspnea and EB were measured by a numerical scale. The use of drugs used for continuous dyspnea and EB was recorded. Patients were asked about the characteristics of EB (frequency, intensity, duration and triggers). The Multidimensional dyspnea profile (MDP), the Brief dyspnea inventory (BDI), the Athens sleep scale (AIS) and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) were also administered. Results: From 439 advanced cancer patients surveyed, 34 and 27 patients had EB, without and with background dyspnea, respectively. The mean intensity and the number of episodes were higher in patients with background dyspnea (p < 0.0005 and p = 0.05, respectively). No differences in duration were observed. Most episodes lasted <10 min. A recognizable cause triggering EB was often found. The presence of both background dyspnea and EB was associated with higher values of MDP and BDI. EB was independently associated with frequency and intensity of background dyspnea (OR = 20.9, 95% CI (Confidence interval) 9.1–48.0; p < 0.0005 and OR = 1.97, 95% CI 1.09–3.58; p = 0.025, respectively) and a lower Karnofsky level (OR = 0.96, 95%CI 0.92–0.98, p = 0.05). Discussion: EB may occur in patients with and without continuous dyspnea, and is often induced by physical and psychological factors. EB intensity is higher in patients with continuous dyspnea. The duration was often so short that the use of drugs, as needed, may be too late, unless administered pre-emptively when the trigger was predictable.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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