Posts tagged chemotherapy

Chemo in the last 2 weeks of life

Chemotherapy is a two-edged sword. As an oncology trainee I’ve seen a few patients die solely because of it. And yet aggressive treatment is sometimes necessary to save a life; in the right settings it often succeeds. Patients with Hodgkins’ disease, testicular cancer, acute leukemias, and early stage colon, lung, or breast cancers, among others, are often cured because of chemotherapy and other aggressive treatments. Like any useful tool though, it must be properly applied in order to be effective and avoid harm. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to drive a nail; similarly, chemotherapy shouldn’t be given to all patients in all situations, nor should it be a substitute for good discussions about goals of care and the likelihood of deriving benefit.

Yesterday’s cancer SIG presentation cut to the core of many issues that create tension between oncologists and palliative care clinicians. Most of us have probably seen difficult situations involving chemotherapy; it can be very upsetting! We tend to point the finger at oncologists when things go wrong, but we must recognize their unique perspective. To paraphrase one of today’s presenters, “Sometimes I can give a patient 5 different rounds of chemotherapy over 7 years and see them respond well each time.” In other words, chemo often really helps patients, even when its intent is palliative. I promise, we’re not monsters….oncologists are people too! :)

Data support the use of chemotherapy in a number of advanced disease settings, even many solid tumors. Yes, chemotherapy can and should be part of good palliation in many settings. There are significant symptom benefits, QOL improvements, and survival benefits to be had in cases of lung, breast, colon, and prostate cancer; many other solid tumors respond to chemotherapy as well. Of course, the devil is in the details. An emerging quality indicator in oncology practice is the proportion of patients receiving chemotherapy in the last 2 weeks of life. Too many patients are receiving chemo just before death.

Here’s the conundrum: we know chemotherapy can be beneficial, but only in certain settings. Unfortunately we’re not very good at predicting how well a particular patient will tolerate treatment, nor how well their tumor(s) will respond. How should we proceed?

The SIG speakers recommend following a framework: First, look to published guidelines like those from the NCCN, which tell us when chemotherapy is no longer recommended (link). If treatment is pursued, it must be done with full informed consent regarding its palliative intent. Treatment must be viewed as a time-limited trial, with specific criteria for measuring response and planned discontinuation if none is seen. Transitions to hospice should be discussed early, at the first signs of decline in function. And the palliative care team should be involved! As Dr. Smith pointed out, recent data on early palliative care in advanced lung cancer shows a resultant reduction in chemotherapy usage in the last 60 days of life. We still don’t really know how this works, but it works, and it doesn’t impair survival.

Going forward, palliative care will become more integrated into comprehensive cancer care, as per recent recommendations (link). This requires palliative care clinicians to better understand the role of chemotherapy as part of good palliative care for many cancer patients. Let’s be constructive, and increasingly work side-by-side with our oncology colleagues in caring for patients with incurable cancer. Hug an oncologist today! :)

Thomas W. LeBlanc, MD, MA
Fellow, Medical Oncology and Palliative Medicine
Duke University

Magic Mouthwash–The Last Snake Oil

Mucositis is a frequent problem encountered by hospice and palliative care services. Its treatment remains a major focus of holistic and medical therapy. Mucositis is found among 40-50% of patients receiving standard chemotherapy or head / neck radiation. This percentage is nearly doubled for bone marrow transplant patients. It can occur as a direct consequence of the radiation or chemotherapy or indirectly from infections compounding immunosuppression. Once the offending agent is stopped mucosal integrity gradually returns. In the meantime the inflammatory pain reduces the patient’s quality of life while also decreasing their oral intake leading to dehydration and malnutrition. Magic mouthwash, known by many names and aliases, reduces the pain, the disability of mucositis. Its basic constituents are as follows (1);

1) A topical anesthetic (eg. an antihistamine to reduce pain).

2) An antibiotic or antifungal.

3) A corticosteroid to decrease inflammation.

4) An antacid to coat and protect the mucosa.

The type and quantity of the constituents will vary according to the practitioner and their locale. Some common recipes are as follows (2,3);

University of Florida

60 ml Benadryl (liq)

60 ml Viscous Xylocaine

60 ml Nystatin

60 ml Maalox

sig 5 ml swish / spit q2 hrs prn

Mary’s Magic Potion

240 ml Benadryl 12.5 mg / 5 ml

1.5 grams Tetracycline

6 million units Nystatin

60 mg Hydrocortisone

sig 5 ml swish / spit QID

Weisman’s Philadelphia Mouthwash

160 ml Distilled water

80 mg Hydrocortisone

80 ml Maalox

sig 5 ml swish / spit QID


100 ml Cherry-flavored Kool-Aid mixed w/ 2000 ml distilled water (sugar- free)

100 ml Viscous Xylocaine 2%

100 ml Nystatin

sig 15 ml swish / spit or swallow QID

Mile’s Solution

20 ml Benadryl 12.5 mg / 5 ml

150 ml Viscous Lidocaine 2%

2 grams Tetracycline

20 ml Nystatin

100 mg Hydrocortisone (Solu-Cortef)

sig 15-30 ml swish / swallow q4-6 hrs

Data are scarce supporting the efficacy of the individual components (especially the steroids and the antibiotics) in the treatment of mucositis. However, for many of our patients who suffer from the debilitation of mucositis, the relief that this concoction offers has earned their faith and our respect.

Robert Killeen MD


1) Moynihan T. Magic Mouthwash; Effective in Treating Chemotherapy Mouth Sores? – 10/31/09.

2) Tom WC. Magic Mouthwash. Pharmacist’s Letter / Prescriber’s Letter. 2007;23(7):230703.

3) Covinsky K. Management of Mucositis: Requesting Your Wisdom. Geriatrics and Palliative Blog – 7/8/10.