Background: Breathlessness is one of the core symptoms, particularly persistent and frequent, towards the end of life. There is no evidence of how the experience of breathlessness differs across conditions. This paper compares the experience of breathlessness in cancer, COPD, heart failure and MND, four conditions sharing heavy symptom burdens, poor prognoses, high breathlessness rates and palliative care needs.
Methods: For this qualitative study a purposive sample of 48 patients was included with a diagnosis of cancer (10), COPD (18), heart failure (10) or MND (10) and experiencing daily problems of breathlessness. Patients were recruited from the respective clinics at the hospital; specialist nurses' ward rounds and consultations, and "Breathe Easy" service users meetings in the community. Data were collected through semi-structured, in-depth interviews and participant observation. Breathlessness was compared according to six components derived from explanatory models and symptom schemata, first within groups and then across groups. Frequency counts were conducted to check the qualitative findings.
Results: All conditions shared the disabling effects of breathlessness. However there were differences between the four conditions, in the specific constraints of the illness and patients' experiences with the health care context and social environment. In cancer, breathlessness signalled the (possible) presence of cancer, and functioned as a reminder of patients' mortality despite the hopes they put in surgery, therapies and new drugs. For COPD patients, breathlessness was perceived as a self-inflicted symptom. Its insidious nature and response from services disaffirmed their experience and gradually led to greater disability in the course of illness. Patients with heart failure perceived breathlessness as a contributing factor to the negative effects of other symptoms. In MND breathlessness meant that the illness was a dangerous threat to patients' lives. COPD and heart failure had similar experiences.
Conclusion: Integrated palliative care is needed, that makes use of all appropriate therapeutic options, collaborative efforts from health, social care professionals, patients and caregivers, and therapies that acknowledge the dynamic interrelation of the body, mind and spirit.