Understanding breathlessness: cross-sectional comparison of symptom burden and palliative care needs in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer

J Palliat Med. 2010 Sep;13(9):1109-18. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2010.0068.


Background: Little is known about symptom burden and palliative care needs of breathless patients with advanced cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Objectives: We aimed to describe and compare symptoms and needs in these two groups in relation to survival.

Methods: Cross-sectional study of breathless patients with COPD III/IV or advanced cancer. Data were collected in an interview using the Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale short form (MSAS-SF), the modified Borg Scale, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, and the Palliative Care Outcome Scale (POS). Follow-up information was collected on survival.

Results: Forty-nine patients with cancer and 60 patients with COPD were recruited. Both groups had similar demographics and a similar high symptom burden: median number of 14 symptoms; most prevalent symptoms in both groups besides breathlessness were drowsiness, lack of energy, cough; median global symptom distress on MSAS-Global Distress Index MSAS-GDI 1.6 in cancer and 1.4 in COPD. HADS depression scores were higher than HADS anxiety scores. Palliative care needs were also similar in both groups. Median survival was 107 days in patients with cancer and 589 days in patients with COPD.

Conclusions: Symptom burden and palliative care needs of breathless patients with severe COPD are considerable and as high as among patients with advanced primary and secondary lung cancer although patients with COPD have a longer survival.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Health Services Needs and Demand
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Lung Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Lung Neoplasms / psychology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Palliative Care*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / psychology
  • Statistics, Nonparametric