Palliative care – also known as supportive care or comfort care – is a medical subspecialty that takes a whole health approach to treat the physical and mental symptoms caused by critical illnesses like cancer. The priority focus of palliative care is on a patient’s quality of life and needs and is an extra level of support to medical care. It can address a patient’s physical, mental, spiritual, and social struggles at every stage of treatment, from diagnosis to recovery.
There have been many studies done that show that palliative care not only improves a patient’s quality of life, it also helps increase survival rates. So, what exactly is palliative care, and how can it help someone you love?
Incorporating Palliative Care With Cancer Treatment
More and more over the years, palliative care is being viewed as a standard part of quality cancer care. Cancer patients can start receiving palliative care as soon as they are ready and feel they need it. Most importantly, it is never too late to begin palliative care as it is available anytime during a patient’s cancer journey. It is also available to patients of any age and at any stage of the disease.
Provided by a variety of palliative care specialists, your team can include health care practitioners like doctors, nurses, dieticians, therapists, psychologists, social workers, financial counselors, spiritual or religious counselors, patient navigators, and more. Your palliative care is an integral part of your overall cancer care team, with everyone working together to implement a comprehensive treatment plan to address your needs that include:
- Physical symptoms like pain, changes in or loss of appetite, fatigue/insomnia, nausea and vomiting, trouble breathing
- Mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, stress, fear, and other emotional issues
- Spiritual or religious concerns related to disease or treatment
- Daily life struggles like financial or legal worries, employment, child or elder care, transportation, or other practical concerns
Palliative care is valuable because it is customizable care specific to you and your needs. It can help you manage your pain and other side effects caused by treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation. It also prioritizes your goals. For instance, if your goal is to continue working while undergoing cancer treatment, your palliative care team will help create an action care plan to help you achieve that goal.
Another part of palliative care is support for caregivers and family members. A cancer diagnosis can impact your loved ones, leaving them stressed and needing support. Palliative care is available to caregivers, families, and friends by offering them emotional support, guidance, and coping mechanisms so they can better help you throughout your journey.
Palliative Care vs. Hospice Care
It is a common misconception that palliative care and hospice care are interchangeable. In actuality, hospice care is a type of palliative care offered to patients in the last phase of their incurable disease or near the end of their life.
Both palliative and hospice care have similar goals: to better an individual’s quality of life by relieving the side effects and symptoms of an illness. The major difference is that palliative care is always available to patients, and hospice care is typically delivered during the last six months of life.
Similar to palliative care, hospice care specialists will help you and your loved ones create a personalized care plan that focuses on your comfort, decisions about living wills and medical power of attorneys, and where hospice care will be provided while giving emotional support to family members.
How to Receive Palliative Care
Immediately after a cancer diagnosis or at any time after, you can speak to your oncologist about how to access palliative care. Possible questions to ask your cancer team regarding palliative care include:
- What palliative care services are available to me or my loved ones?
- Is palliative care part of my cancer care? If so, when does it begin?
- Where can I find additional support? Where can my family find support?
- How can I find out more about palliative care?
Your cancer team may refer you to a palliative care specialist, like a patient navigator, to begin coordinating your palliative care. There are national organizations that have databases of potential palliative care providers. The Center for Advance Palliative Care has providers listed by state, and you can also find providers through the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization. If you are looking for financial support, Partners in Care is here to help you and your loved ones in your fight against cancer.