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Cancer Health Center

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Fatigue (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Intervention


In February 2010, the FDA approved and mandated a risk management program to inform health care providers and their patients about the risk of ESAs.[12,17] This program includes a specific medication guide for patients that, along with the FDA public health advisory,[18] states that ESAs are not approved or indicated for the treatment of fatigue in patients with cancer.


One of the most popular categories of pharmacologic interventions evaluated for cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is psychostimulants (see Table 2). Psychostimulants are drugs that interact with neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain to increase cortical function. Different types of psychostimulants work through various mechanisms to produce activity in the brain consistent with short-term improvement in energy level and psychomotor activity. These medications may also improve mood, attention, and concentration in some populations. Psychostimulants on the market include the following:

Initial support for the hypothesis that psychostimulants may improve CRF arises largely from clinical anecdotal experiences. These medications are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of CRF. However, preliminary evidence from randomized controlled studies [19,20,21] suggests that these medications might be helpful in a subpopulation of patients experiencing more severe fatigue. There are at least seven published randomized clinical trials evaluating psychostimulants for CRF: six with methylphenidate and one with modafinil. Only one of these randomized trials [19] has shown significant differences between the placebo group and methylphenidate group with respect to the outcome of fatigue.

The one study that demonstrated significant improvements over placebo for CRF used a mean dose of 27.7 mg of the D-isomer of methylphenidate as a study intervention.[19] The population that benefited was women who had completed chemotherapy for breast or ovarian cancer. The study design incorporated a titration to effect, so some patients who may have benefited may have received more than 27.7 mg of the drug. Furthermore, 11% of participants on this trial withdrew because of adverse events, compared with 1% in the placebo arm. Conversely, an equally large randomized controlled trial randomly assigned patients with early and advanced disease, both on and off treatment, to receive 54 mg of a long-acting methylphenidate preparation equaling 27 mg of the D-isomer or a placebo; this trial found no differences between the two groups in any of the fatigue outcomes.[22][Level of evidence: I] There were significant differences between groups for nervousness and appetite loss, with the methylphenidate arm scoring worse on both of those side effects.

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