Palliative surgery eases pain at end of life

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Palliative surgery: Succeeding to comfort

Over the past decade palliative surgery has been increasingly discussed and scrutinized, as the concept of palliative care has gained greater traction with medical professionals and the public. Not too long ago the designation “palliative” when applied to a surgical procedure had an apologetic connotation because the operation would fail to heal. In some cases the term was even used to describe positive tumor margins at the conclusion of a resection – something totally irrelevant when assessing the direct impact of the operation upon a patient’s self-designated symptoms.

Only recently has a more positive perspective emerged, helped by data such as these researchers have presented. Palliative surgery now is not failing to cure, but succeeding to comfort.

New perspectives, however, will raise new and necessary questions to better define the role of surgery in the greater context of relief of suffering in all its manifestations. In our wish to respond surgically to pain and other symptoms we must be vigilant against the temptation to “do something” when surgery for cure or palliation is unlikely to help in order to assuage our feelings of hopelessness. Hopelessness is not an indication for surgery – pain, obstruction, and saving life are. Indications for surgery must be more specific, as this article points out, and it is more likely to help with localized and pressing symptoms. A rule of thumb passed down to me from my surgeon grandfather who practiced in an era when the vast majority of operations were palliative, the more pressing and clear the indication for surgery, the better the result.

Dr. Geoffrey Dunn, an ACS Fellow based in Erie, Pa.



HOUSTON – Palliative surgery can alleviate pain and improve the quality of life for patients dying from advanced cancers, without compromising performance status, a study showed.

Among 202 patients with stage III or IV cancers who underwent surgery with palliation as the goal, pain scores were significantly improved after surgery, while Karnofsky Performance Status (KPS) scores remained unchanged, said Dr. Anne Falor, a surgical oncology fellow at City of Hope in Duarte, Calif.

Dr. Anne Falor

Dr. Anne Falor

“Surgical oncology has not been historically involved in palliative care. If a patient is deemed unresectable, his or her treatment is often the purview of medical or radiation oncology,” she said at the annual Society of Surgical Oncology Cancer Symposium.

But for patients who are likely to have prolonged disease-free intervals, palliative surgery can be performed with low morbidity, she said.

Dr. Falor and her colleagues reviewed their center’s experience with palliative surgery in 2011, during which time 202 patients with a predicted 5-year survival of less than 5% underwent a total of 247 palliative procedures.

The patients had malignancies at various sites, including the large intestine, lung, stomach, breast, prostate, lymph nodes, esophagus, pancreas, and ovaries.

The primary indications for the procedure included dysphagia, pain/wound problems, dyspnea, nausea and vomiting, and dysuria.

Most of the patients (83%) had a single procedure, but 13% had two operations, 4% had three operations, 1% had four procedures, and 0.4% had five or more interventions.

The majority of procedures performed were endoscopic interventions characterized as minor in nature, followed by minor genitourinary and thoracic interventions, although a nearly equal proportion of thoracic interventions (about 28%) were major procedures such as diverting ostomy.

When the investigators looked at 30-day outcomes following palliative surgery, they found that only 13% of patients needed an urgent care visit, 2% required a triage call, 22% were readmitted, and 60% had an institutional supportive care referral.

Total 30-day morbidity of any kind was seen in 37% of patients; 15% of patients died within 30 days of surgery.

Looking at quality of life outcomes, the investigators found no differences in the percentage of patients with KPS scores from 80 to 100 between the presurgery and postsurgery periods (78% and 70%, respectively, P = ns).

There were significant improvements, however, in pain scores, which dropped by a mean of 1.2 points from the preoperative period to discharge (P < .0001), and decreased by 0.6 points before surgery to the first follow-up visit (P = .0037).

Dr. Falor said that it’s important for patients and their care team to have a discussion regarding expectations for surgery and the goals of care.

The study was internally funded. Dr. Falor reported having no conflicts of interest.

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