Not all conditions are curable, and not all treatments are curative. Some treatments are based on improving quality of life, and alleviating symptoms. This is a hallmark of patient centered care – doing what we can to make the patient feel better even when we can’t ‘fix’ or cure the underlying disease. No where is this more evident than in the treatment of malignant effusions.
By definition, a Malignant Effusion is the development of fluid in the fluids related to an underlying (and sometimes previously undiagnosed) malignancy. Malignant effusions can be seen with several different kinds of cancers, most commonly lung and breast cancers. The development of a malignant effusion is a poor prognostic sign as it is an indicator of metastasis to the pleural tissue/ space.
The development of a malignant effusion usually presents with symptoms of shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing. While the treatment of the underlying cancer may vary, the primary goal of treatment of an effusion is palliative (or symptom relief). The best way to relieve symptoms is by removing the fluid.
This can be done several ways – but each has its own drawbacks.
The fluid can be drawn out with a needle (thoracentesis) either bedside or under fluroscopy. This procedure is quick, and can be performed on an out-patient basis, in a doctor’s office, or in radiology.
The potential drawbacks with this treatment strategy are two-fold:
1. There is a chance that during the procedure, the needle will ‘poke’ or ‘pop’ the lung, causing a pneumothorax (or collapse of the lung). This then requires a chest tube to be placed so the lung can re-expand while it heals. However, if the procedure is performed uneventfully, (like it usually does) the patient can go home the same day.
2. The other complication – is rapid re – accumulation – since you haven’t treated the underlying cause, but have only removed the fluid. This also happens when the cause of the effusion (nonmalignant) is from congestive heart failure. This means the fluid (and symptoms of shortness of breath) may return quickly, requiring the patient to return to the hospital – which is hard of the patient and their family.
Video- Assisted Thoracoscopy: (VATs)
Malignant effusions can also be treated by VATS – this is a good option if we are uncertain of the etiology (or the reason) for the effusion. While all fluid removed is routinely sent for cytopathology (when removed during surgery, thoracentesis or chest tube placement) – but cytopathology can be notoriously inaccurate with false negative reports, because the diagnosis is dependent on the pathologist actually seeing cancer cells in the fluid. However, during the VATs procedure – the surgeon can take tissue samples, and photos along with fluid for diagnostic testing. This is important because I have had cases in the operating room (VATS) where the surgeon actually sees the tumor(s)** with the camera but the fluid comes back as negative.
** in these cases, we send biopsies of the tumor tissue – which is much more accurate and definitive.
But a VATS procedure requires an operation, chest tube placement and several days in the hospital.
Chest tube placement:
Another option is chest tube placement – which also requires several days in the hospital..
During both chest tube placement and VATS, a procedure called pleurodesis can be performed to try to prevent the fluid from re-accumulating.
But what if we know it’s a malignant effusion? What are the other options for treatment?
Catheter based treatments: (aka PleurX style catheter, or Heimlich valve)
(note: catheter means a small tube – a foley catheter is the type used to drain urine, but other types are used for many things – even an IV is a catheter.)
One of the options used in our practice was pleur X (brand) catheter placement. This catheter was a small flexible tube that could be placed under local anesthesia – either in the office or the operating room – as an ambulatory procedure. After some patient teaching, including a short video, most family members felt comfortable emptying the catheter every two or three days at home, to prevent fluid re -accumulation (and allowing the patient to continue normal activities, at home.)
PleurX catheter placement is preferred in many cases due to ease of use, and patient convenience. The Heimlich valve is messier – as it tends to leak, and harder for patients to hide under clothing.
Sometimes a visiting nurse would go out and empty the catheter, and in several cases, patients would come to the office, where I would do the same thing – it was a nice way to relieve the patient’s symptoms without requiring hospitalization, and several studies have shown that repeated drainage often caused spontaneous pleurodesis (fluid no longer accumulated.) We would then take the catheter out in the office.. Now, like any procedure, there is a chance for problems with this therapy as well, infection, catheter can clog, etc..
But here’s another study, showing that even frail patients benefit from home-based therapy – which is important when we go back and consider our original treatment goals:
-Improving quality of life
In the article, the authors used talc with the catheters and then applied a Heimlich valve, which is another technique very similar to pleurX catheter placement. (Sterile talc is used for the pleurodesis procedure – which we will talk about in more detail in the future.)
Another article, this one by Heffner & Klein (2009) published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings discusses the diagnosis and treatment of malignant effusions.