How do you manage common inpatient oncologic emergencies?

Three routinely encountered emergencies in the inpatient setting


In 2016, there were an estimated 15,338,988 people living with cancer in the United States.1 As such, it is important that hospitalists be proficient in managing oncologic emergencies that can arise during the natural history of cancer or from its treatment. This article will review three emergencies that are routinely encountered in the inpatient setting: malignant spinal cord compression (MSCC), hypercalcemia of malignancy (HCM), and febrile neutropenia (FN).


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Mr. Williams is a 56-year-old man with newly diagnosed metastatic prostate cancer, diabetes mellitus, peptic ulcer disease, and hypertension. He is admitted with back pain and lower extremity weakness worsening over 2 weeks. He denies loss of sensation or bowel and bladder incontinence and can walk. MRI confirms cord compression at T10. What initial and subsequent steroid doses would be of most benefit to administer?

Malignant spinal cord compression

Treatment of MSCC usually aims to preserve function rather than reverse established deficits. MSCC from epidural tumor metastasis develops in 5%-14% of all cancer cases,2 with back pain as the most common symptom. Nearly 60%-85% of patients have weakness at the time of diagnosis,3 and unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of patients will be nonambulatory at presentation.

Dr. Krishna A. Chokshi, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York

Dr. Krishna A. Chokshi

While timely steroid administration in addition to definitive treatment may maintain ambulatory capacity at 1 year after therapy,4 there is no consensus on the optimal loading and maintenance dose and duration of steroids.

Overview of the data

Although there are no formal guidelines on optimal steroid dosing for MSCC, it is common practice for dexamethasone to be initially dosed at 10 mg followed by 4 mg every 4-6 hours.5 The use of higher doses of dexamethasone may result in improvement in neurologic deficits, but has higher risks for toxicity and is not universally supported in the literature.

A study conducted by Vecht and colleagues demonstrated few differences between initial high-dose and low-dose dexamethasone.6 Intravenous administration of either 10 mg or 100 mg dexamethasone, both followed by total 16 mg of dexamethasone orally per day, showed no significant difference in mobility or survival between the groups.

Dr. Cardinale Smith, Mount SInai Hospital, New York

Dr. Cardinale Smith

In a prospective study by Heimdal and colleagues that evaluated the relationship between dexamethasone dose and toxicity, higher doses of steroids had no meaningful impact on neurological symptoms and resulted in more severe side effects.7 Patients were either given 96-mg IV loading dose, gradually tapered over 2 weeks, or enrolled in the low-dose group in which they received 4-mg IV dexamethasone four times per day with a taper over 2 weeks. The high-dose group experienced side effects in 28.6% of patients, with 14.3% experiencing serious side effects. Meanwhile, 7.9% of the low-dose group exhibited some side effects, with none experiencing serious adverse effects.The high-dose group did not experience a significant increase in mobility (57.1 vs. 57.9%).

Key takeaways

Dexamthasone 10-mg oral or IV followed by 4 mg every 4-6 hours until definitive treatment is started is associated with improved neurologic outcomes and minimal adverse side effects. Higher doses of steroids are unlikely to offer more benefit. In patients with paraplegia or autonomic dysfunction, the ability to restore neurologic function is reduced and the burdens of steroid treatment may outweigh its benefits.5


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