JOURNAL OF PALLIATIVE MEDICINE
Volume 13, Number 8, 2010 Fast Facts and Concepts
ª Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
Evaluation of Malignant Ascites #176
Karen LeBlanc and Robert M. Arnold, M.D.
Background draining lymphatics, portal vein thrombosis, elevated portal
venous pressure from cirrhosis, congestive heart failure,
M alignant ascites is the accumulation of abdominal
ﬂuid due to the direct effects of cancer. This Fast Fact
reviews the causes and diagnosis of malignant ascites. Fast
constrictive pericarditis, nephrotic syndrome, and peritoneal
Depending on the clinical presentation and expected sur-
Fact #177 will review its treatment. vival, a diagnostic evaluation is usually indicated, as it will
affect both prognosis and treatment approach. Key tests in-
Pathophysiology clude the serum albumin and protein level and a simulta-
neous diagnostic paracentesis, checking ascitic ﬂuid white
The pathophysiology of malignant ascites is incompletely blood cell count, albumin, protein, and cytology.
understood. Contributing mechanisms include tumor-related
obstruction of lymphatic drainage, increased vascular perme- Classiﬁcation
ability, over-activation of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone
system, neoplastic ﬂuid production, and production of me- The old classiﬁcation of exudative versus transudative as-
talloproteinases that degrade the extracellular matrix. Portal cites has been updated using the serum-ascites albumin gra-
venous compression can also occur from metastatic invasion of dient (SAAG).
the liver, leading to peritoneal ﬂuid accumulation.
SAAG = (the serum albumin concentration) – (ascitic
ﬂuid albumin concentration)
A SAAG 1.1 g/dl indicates ascites due to, at least in part,
The most common cancers associated with ascites are ad-
increased portal pressures, with an accuracy of 97%. This is
enocarcinomas of the ovary, breast, colon, stomach, and
most commonly seen in patients with cirrhosis, hepatic con-
pancreas. Median survival after diagnosis of malignant ascites
gestion, CHF, or portal vein thrombosis.
is in the range of 1–4 months; survival is apt to be longer for
A SAAG 1.1 g/dl indicates no portal hypertension, with
ovarian and breast cancers if systemic anti-cancer treatments
an accuracy of 97%; most commonly seen in peritoneal carci-
nomatosis, an infectious process of the peritoneum, nephrotic
syndrome, or malnutrition/hypoalbuminemia.
Presentation and Diagnostics Cytological evaluation is approximately 97% sensitive in
Symptoms include abdominal distension, nausea, vomit- cases of peritoneal carcinomatosis, but is not helpful in the
ing, early satiety, dyspnea, lower extremity edema, weight detection of other types of malignant ascites due to massive
gain, and reduced mobility. Physical exam ﬁndings may in- hepatic metastasis or malignant obstruction of lymph vessels.
clude abdominal distention, bulging ﬂanks, shifting dullness,
and a ﬂuid wave. Plain abdominal x-rays are not speciﬁc, but References
may show a hazy or a ‘‘ground glass’’ appearance. Ultrasound 1. Thomas J, von Gunten CF: Diagnosis and management of
or CT scanning can conﬁrm the presence of ascites and ascites. In Berger AM, Von Roenn J, Schuster J, eds. Principles
demonstrate if the ﬂuid is loculated in discrete areas of the and Practice of Palliative Care and Supportive Oncology, 3rd ed.
peritoneal cavity. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams Wilkins; 2006.
There are many potential causes of ascites in the cancer 2. Adam RA, Adam YG: Malignant ascites: Past, present, and
patient: peritoneal carcinomatosis, malignant obstruction of future. J Am Coll Surg 2004;198:999–1011.
Fast Facts and Concepts are edited by Drew A Rosielle MD, Palliative Care Center, Medical College of Wisconsin. For more information,
write to: email@example.com. More information, as well as the complete set of Fast Facts, are available at EPERC: www.eperc.mcw.edu.
Version History: Current version re-copy-edited in May 2009.
Copyright/Referencing Information: Users are free to download and distribute Fast Facts for educational purposes only. LeBlanc K,
Arnold RA. Evaluation of Malignant Ascites. Fast Facts and Concepts. March 2007; 176. Available at: www.eperc.mcw.edu/fastfact/
Disclaimer: Fast Facts and Concepts provide educational information. This information is not medical advice. Health care providers should
exercise their own independent clinical judgment. Some Fast Facts cite the use of a product in a dosage, for an indication, or in a manner other
than that recommended in the product labeling. Accordingly, the ofﬁcial prescribing information should be consulted before any such
product is used.
1028 FAST FACTS AND CONCEPTS
3. Spratt JS, Edwards M, Kubota T, et al: Peritoneal carcino- Address correspondence to:
matosis: Anatomy, physiology, diagnosis, management. Curr Robert M. Arnold, M.D.
Probl Cancer 1986;10:553–584. Division of Internal Medicine
4. Becker G, Galandi D, Blum HE: Malignant ascites: Systematic University of Pittsburgh
review and guideline for treatment. Eur J Cancer 2006; 42:589–597. 200 N. Lothrop Street
5. Aslam N, Marino CR. Malignant ascites: New concepts in Pittsburgh, PA 15213
pathophysiology, diagnosis, and management. Arch Intern
Med 2001; 161:2733–2737. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Palliative Treatment of Malignant Ascites #177
Karen LeBlanc and Robert M. Arnold, M.D.
Background extended duration (peritonitis, accidental removal,
T he natural history, presenting signs/symptoms, and
diagnostic approach to the patient with malignant
ascites are discussed in Fast Fact #176; readers are encouraged
b. Tunneled catheter: A catheter that prevents infection by
promoting scarring around an antibiotic-impregnated
Dacron cuff in subcutaneous tissue. Used convention-
to read this Fast Fact to review the important role of deter- ally for peritoneal dialysis, it is placed with ultrasound
mining the serum-ascites albumin gradient (SAAG) as a diag- or ﬂuoroscopic guidance and has lower risks of infec-
nostic and treatment aid. This Fast Fact will review treatment tion and leakage than the pigtail catheter. Complica-
approaches. tions are reduced by daily drainage for the ﬁrst 2 weeks
of cuff healing. The Pleurx catheter is FDA approved
1. Diuretics for malignant ascites, and features a one-way rubber
valve to prevent leaks between draining sessions.
Malignant ascites (SAAG 1.1) generally does not re-
Tunneled catheters are used in patients with a life ex-
spond to diuretic treatment, although no randomized trials
pectancy of at least 1 month.
have been completed. Patients with evidence of portal
hypertension (SAAG 1.1) are more likely to respond to
diuretics. 4. Vascular Shunts
2. Paracentesis a. Peritovenous shunt (PVS) systems are designed to
channel peritoneal ﬂuid and proteins in benign as-
Paracentesis can provide immediate relief of symptoms cites back into the circulation via the superior vena
in up to 90% of patients. Drainage of uncomplicated large- cava. PVS has not been shown to have clinically
volume ascites (4–6 L/session) can be done safely and quickly signiﬁcant risk of disseminating tumor cells in
in the outpatient setting—including the home—or at the malignant ascites. A PVS is placed by interventional
hospital bedside; ultrasound guidance is necessary only when radiology under conscious sedation, and patients
there is loculated ﬂuid. typically require 24 hours of monitoring with a
central venous line after the procedure. The best
3. Drainage catheters response to PVS (only about 50%) is in ovarian and
breast cancers. PVS is recommended only in patients
For patients who require frequent paracentesis, external
with a life expectancy of 1 to 3 months.
drainage catheters placed through the abdominal wall allow
b. Transjugular Intrahepatic Portosystemic Shunt (TIPS) is a
frequent or continuous drainage of ascites ﬂuid without re-
shunt between the portal vein and hepatic vein, de-
petitive needle insertions. Patients or caretakers may perform
signed to reduce portal hypertension and improve
the drainage, reducing visits to medical clinics. Several types
sodium balance. Most patients with malignant ascites
of catheters are available including:
do not have portal hypertension although TIPS might
a. Pigtail catheter: A simple, temporary all-purpose cath- be helpful in the occasional cancer with evidence of
eter; prone to complications when used over an increased portal pressures (SAAG 1.1).