BACKGROUND--Although most treatment for non-small cell lung cancer is palliative, data on the adequacy of symptom control are scanty and there has been little discussion about the appropriate indices. METHODS--Two hundred and eighty nine unselected patients presenting sequentially to six specialists were studied; 242 cases were confirmed histologically and all were managed as non-small cell lung cancer. At presentation and two monthly for one year or until death each of 12 symptoms was graded by a physician at a clinic interview on a four point scale as absent, mild, moderate, or severe. For each symptom a palliative index (median duration of control/median duration of survival) was calculated, where control was defined as an improvement in symptoms of any severity by one grade or more. RESULTS--Sixty four (22%) patients had surgery, 15 (5%) radical and 107 (37%) palliative radiotherapy, and 103 (36%) best supportive care. Analysis showed that most symptoms inexorably worsened with time. The palliation index for haemoptysis was 86%, chest pain 73%, cough 34%, and breathlessness 30%; for systemic symptoms it was 54% for anorexia and 47% for malaise. Palliation was poor in many patients after surgery. Breathlessness was a particular problem in the group having best supportive care. CONCLUSIONS--The frequency of most symptoms in non-small cell lung cancer increases inexorably with time until malaise and anorexia are almost universal. Haemoptysis and chest pain are better palliated than cough and breathlessness. Present treatments fail to give adequate palliation for many patients, and the emphasis in future therapeutic studies should be on the relief of the more severe symptoms.
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