Background: Malignancy-related pericardial effusions may represent a terminal event in patients with therapeutically unresponsive disease. However, select patients with malignancies sensitive to available therapies may achieve significant improvement in palliation and long term survival with prompt recognition and appropriate intervention.
Methods: From 1968 to 1994, 150 invasive procedures were performed for the treatment or diagnosis of pericardial effusion in 127 patients with underlying malignancies. These cases were reviewed retrospectively to best identify the clinical features, appropriate diagnostic workup, and optimal therapy for this complication of malignancy.
Results: Dyspnea (81%) and an abnormal pulsus paradoxus (32%) were the most common symptoms. Echocardiography had a 96% diagnostic accuracy. Cytology and pericardial biopsy had sensitivities of 90% and 56%, respectively. Fifty-five percent of all effusions were malignant comprising 71% of adenocarcinomas of the lung, breast, esophagus, and unknown primary site. In 57 patients, a malignant effusion could not be determined, and no definitive etiology could be established for 74% of these effusions. Radiation-induced, infectious, and hemorrhagic pericarditis each were identified in fewer than 5% of cases.
Conclusions: Subxyphoid pericardiotomy proved to be a safe and effective intervention that successfully relieved pericardial effusions in 99% of cases with recurrence and reoperation rates of 9% and 7%, respectively. Survival most closely was related to the extent of disease and its inherent chemo-/radiosensitivity, with 72% of the patients who survived longer than 1 year having breast cancer, leukemia, or lymphoma.