Know What Questions to Ask When Treating MPNs


Oncology nurses must know about disease symptoms and patient comorbidities when treating individuals with myeloproliferative neoplasms.

Julie Huynh-Lu, PA-C

Julie Huynh-Lu, PA-C

Oncology nurses must know what to look for — and what questions to ask — when treating patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), as side effects and other patient characteristics can play a role in determining the best treatment regimen, according to Julie Huynh-Lu, PA-C, a physician assistant from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

MPN-Related Symptoms

“Whenever a patient comes to see us, they also fill out the MPN10 questionnaire, [which is] a list of all the 10 symptoms that frequently occur in our patients,” Huynh-Lu said in an interview with Oncology Nursing News. “Ideally, this should be occurring at every visit. On top of them filling that out, I obviously will ask them specific pointed questions as well just to tease out some more information. But this should occur at every visit.”

Symptoms can vary based on the subtype of MPN a patient has. Huynh-Lu said that patients with polycythemia vera and essential thrombocytosis are more likely to experience headaches, confusion or difficulty focusing, or pain and tingling in the fingertips. Meanwhile, common symptoms for patients with myelofibrosis include anemia and thrombocytopenia; shortness of breath and fatigue; bleeding; and complications from spleen enlargement, such as having a poor appetite.

Knowing about these symptoms is key, as they could indicate a physical issue that warrants a change in treatment, Huynh-Lu said. For example, if a patient is not experiencing splenomegaly (enlarged spleen), there may not need to be prescribed a JAK inhibitor. However, if the patient starts to experience a decreased appetite or feel full after eating only a small amount of food, that could indicate that their spleen is becoming enlarged, and that patient may benefit from being put on a JAK inhibitor.

“It can also change the trajectory on whether or not talking about splenectomy is an option. It’s not really our go-to [treatment] in our department at MD Anderson, but that could certainly lend to a conversation into if surgery is an option,” Huynh-Lu said.

Sometimes symptoms can lead to a change in treatment, while other times there may be an easy fix to manage the issue.

If a patient is currently taking a JAK inhibitor, nurses should be sure to ask them about worsening itching, diarrhea, and frequent infections (such as urinary tract infections or pneumonia). Secondary skin cancers can also occur, said Huynh-Lu, “so we always recommend that they get dermatology checks every 6 months.”

“If their [blood] counts are starting to drop, or if their spleen is starting to grow, well, maybe the medication they're on right now, the dosage needs to be altered. But if we alter the dose to a higher medication dose, and the side effects are worse, maybe then it's time to switch to a different class of drugs completely, or same class of drugs, just a different type of drug. There's also, of course, clinical trials that are available, so that could be an option as well,” Huynh-Lu said.

Patient Characteristics and Comorbidities

Regarding patient characteristics and comorbidities, clinicians should know if patients have a history of cardiac, renal, or hepatic complications, as certain medications can affect these organs.

Additionally, interferons are commonly used to treat patients with polycythemia vera. However, according to the National Institutes of Health, these drugs can impact the synthesis of serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, thereby increasing a patient’s risk for depression. That said, clinicians should know if patients have a history of depression or an autoimmune disease before they prescribe an interferon to a patient, Huynh-Lu said.

It also may be beneficial for oncology nurses to ask patients if they are experiencing financial struggles due to their cancer care.

“I know these drugs can be quite expensive. Financially, this can be a burden for some … Sometimes the local oncologists aren't completely aware of financial assistance available for them. So maybe just ask and say, ‘Hey, I know this drug cost this much. Do you know of any financial assistance that you guys can provide for me?’ Because I know sometimes that's not a question that gets asked,” Huynh-Lu said.

Do you know an oncology nurse who goes above and beyond to identify and manage symptoms of patients with MPNs? Submit your nomination for the 2024 Extraordinary Healer® Award for Oncology Nursing.

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