Pharmacologic Interventions for Breathlessness in Patients With Advanced Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Feb 1;4(2):e2037632. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.37632.


Importance: Improved survival in patients with advanced cancer has increased the need for better understanding of how to manage common symptoms that they may experience, such as breathlessness.

Objective: To assess the benefits and harms associated with pharmacologic interventions for breathlessness in adults with advanced cancer.

Data sources: PubMed, Embase, CINAHL, Web of Science, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials were searched for studies published from database inception through May 31, 2020, using predefined eligibility criteria within a PICOTS (population, intervention, comparator, outcome, timing, setting) format.

Study selection: Randomized clinical trials (RCTs), non-RCTs, and observational studies with a comparison group that evaluated benefits and/or harms and cohort studies that reported harms were selected.

Data extraction and synthesis: Two reviewers independently screened studies for eligibility, serially abstracted data, independently assessed risk of bias, and graded strength of evidence (SOE).

Main outcomes and measures: Benefits and harms of pharmacologic interventions were compared, focusing on breathlessness, anxiety, exercise capacity, and health-related quality of life. When possible, meta-analyses were conducted and standardized mean differences (SMDs) calculated.

Results: In this systematic review and meta-analysis, a total of 7729 unique citations were identified, of which 19 studies (17 RCTs and 2 retrospective studies) that included a total of 1424 patients assessed the benefits of medications for management of breathlessness in advanced cancer or reported harms. The most commonly reported type of cancer was lung cancer. Opioids were not associated with more effectiveness than placebo for improving breathlessness (SMD, -0.14; 95% CI, -0.47 to 0.18) or exercise capacity ( SMD, 0.06; 95% CI, -0.43 to 0.55) (SOE, moderate); most studies examined exertional breathlessness. Specific dose and/or route of administration of opioids did not differ in effectiveness for breathlessness (SMD, 0.15; 95% CI, -0.22 to 0.52) (SOE, low). Anxiolytics were not associated with more effectiveness than placebo for breathlessness or anxiety (reported mean between-group difference, -0.52; 95% CI, -1.045 to 0.005) (SOE, low). Evidence for other pharmacologic interventions was limited. Pharmacologic interventions demonstrated some harms compared with usual care, but dropout attributable to adverse events was minimal in these short-term studies (range 3.2%-16%).

Conclusions and relevance: Evidence did not support the association of opioids or other pharmacologic interventions with improved breathlessness. Given that studies had many limitations, pharmacologic interventions should be considered in selected patients but need to be considered in the context of potential harms and evidence of an association of nonpharmacologic interventions with improved breathlessness.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Bronchodilator Agents / therapeutic use
  • Dyspnea / drug therapy*
  • Dyspnea / etiology
  • Dyspnea / physiopathology
  • Dyspnea / psychology
  • Exercise Tolerance*
  • Glucocorticoids / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / complications
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Lung Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Neoplasms / complications
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Quality of Life*
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents
  • Bronchodilator Agents
  • Glucocorticoids