Blood thinners for the initial treatment of blood clots in patients with cancer


Patients with cancer are at an increased risk of blood clots. The blood thinner (anticoagulant) administered in the first few days can consist of unfractionated heparin (infused intravenously) or low molecular weight heparin (injected subcutaneously once or twice per day). These two blood thinners may have different effectiveness and safety profiles.

Study characteristics

We searched scientific databases for clinical trials comparing different blood thinners in people with cancer with a confirmed diagnosis of a blood clot. The trials looked at death, recurrent blood clots, bleeding, postphlebitic syndrome (a complication of long-term blood clots), quality of life and levels of blood platelets (which are involved in blood clotting). The evidence is current to February 2013.

Key results

In this systematic review, data from 13 studies suggest that low molecular weight heparin is superior to unfractionated heparin in reducing mortality. However, there is not enough evidence to prove superiority in reducing recurrence of blood clots. We did not find data to compare the safety profile of these two medications.

Quality of the evidence

The overall quality of the evidence was low.

Authors' conclusions: 

LMWH is possibly superior to UFH in the initial treatment of VTE in patients with cancer. Additional trials focusing on patient-important outcomes will further inform the questions addressed in this review.

Read the full abstract...

Compared with patients without cancer, patients with cancer who receive anticoagulant treatment for venous thromboembolism (VTE) are more likely to develop recurrent VTE.


To compare the efficacy and safety of three types of parenteral anticoagulants (i.e. fixed-dose low molecular weight heparin (LMWH), adjusted-dose unfractionated heparin (UFH), and fondaparinux) for the initial treatment of VTE in patients with cancer.

Search strategy: 

A comprehensive search for studies of anticoagulation in patients with cancer including a February 2013 electronic search of: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE, and ISI Web of Science.

Selection criteria: 

Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) comparing LMWH, UFH, and fondaparinux in patients with cancer and objectively confirmed VTE.

Data collection and analysis: 

Using a standardized data form, review authors extracted data in duplicate on methodologic quality, participants, interventions, and outcomes of interest that included mortality, recurrent VTE, major bleeding, minor bleeding, postphlebitic syndrome, quality of life, and thrombocytopenia.

Main results: 

Of 9559 identified citations, 16 RCTs were eligible: 13 compared LMWH with UFH, two compared fondaparinux with heparin, and one compared dalteparin with tinzaparin. Meta-analysis of 11 studies showed a statistically significant reduction in mortality at three months of follow-up with LMWH compared with UFH (risk ratio (RR) 0.71; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.52 to 0.98). There was little change in the effect estimate after excluding studies of lower methodologic quality (RR 0.72; 95% CI 0.52 to 1.00). A meta-analysis of three studies comparing LMWH with UFH showed no statistically significant reduction in VTE recurrence (RR 0.78; 95% CI 0.29 to 2.08). The overall quality of evidence was low for LMWH versus UFH due to imprecision and likely publication bias. There were no statistically significant differences between heparin and fondaparinux for the outcomes of mortality (RR 1.27; 95% CI 0.88 to 1.84), recurrent VTE (RR 0.95; 95% CI 0.57 to 1.60), major bleeding (RR 0.79; 95% CI 0.39 to1.63), or minor bleeding (RR 1.50; 95% CI 0.87 to 2.59). The one study comparing dalteparin with tinzaparin found no statistically significant difference in mortality (RR 0.86; 95% CI 0.43 to 1.73).