Cancer remains the leading cause of mortality by disease in childhood in high-income countries. For terminally ill children, care focuses on quality of life, and patient management fundamentally affects grieving families. This paper describes our experience of palliative sedation (PS) for children with refractory symptoms caused by solid tumours, focusing on the drugs involved.
We retrospectively collected data on all children treated for cancer who died at the pediatric oncology unit of the Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori between January 2016 and December 2020.
Of the 29 patients eligible for the study, all but 4 received PS. Midazolam was always used, combined in 16 cases with other drugs (mainly classic neuroleptics, alpha-2 agonists and antihistamines). Throughout the period of PS and on the day of death, patients with sarcoma were given higher doses of midazolam and morphine, and more often received combinations of drugs than patients with brain tumours. Sarcoma causes significant symptoms, while brain tumours require less intensive analgesic-sedative therapies because they already impair a patient’s state of consciousness.
Optimising pharmacological treatments demands a medical team that knows how drugs (often developed for other indications) work. Emotional and relational aspects are important too, and any action to lower a patient’s consciousness should be explained to the family and justified. Parents should not feel like helpless witnesses. Guidelines on PS in paediatrics could help, providing they acknowledge that a child’s death is always a unique case.