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Cancer Symptoms Need More Attention from Doctors

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doctor and patient Photo: Getty Images

Doctors need more education in treating cancer symptoms, as opposed to just killing malignant cells, according to Dr. Laura Shoemaker. Both cancer itself and cancer treatments produce serious symptoms that impair quality of life, possibly to the point of interfering with the patient's ability to recover from the disease.

The first step for doctors is to recognize symptoms. This is where patients can make significant contributions to their own care. Shoemaker and collaborators reported that most patients fail to report cancer symptoms unless the physician inquires carefully. They suggested patients have low expectations for their well-being during cancer treatment. In a survey of their palliative care patients, the median number of symptoms in the initial complaint was only 1, whereas systematic assessment produced a median number of 10 symptoms. Some patients have 25 or more symptoms.

The most common symptoms for patients with advanced cancer are:
1. Pain, in 89 percent
2. Fatigue, in 69 percent
3. Weakness, in 66 percent
4. Anorexia (loss of appetite), in 66 percent
5. Lack of energy, in 61 percent
6. Nausea, in 60 percent
7. Dry mouth, in 57 percent
8. Constipation, in 52 percent
9. Early satiety (difficulty in eating enough), in 51 percent
10. Dyspnea (trouble breathing), in 50 percent
11.Vomiting, in 30 percent

One of the most distressing but least effectively treated symptoms is dyspnea, which includes the sensation of breathlessness, chest tightness, air hunger, suffocation or increased work of breathing. Palliative sedation is used more frequently for dyspnea than for pain. However, many cases can be treated effectively with opiod drugs. These drugs are underutilized, according to the Cleveland Clinic article, because they can cause respiratory depression in high doses. Appropriate doses make breathing easier for the patient. Pure oxygen may be useful for other reasons, but does not improve the symptoms of dyspnea.

There are many pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments for the gastrointestinal symptoms of anorexia, nausea, dry mouth, constipation, early satiety and vomiting.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.