Palliative Cancer Care

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What is palliative care for cancer?

Palliative cancer care focuses on relieving the symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment. It aims to improve your quality of life and ease pain and other problems with comfort measures and palliative therapies. It does not include treatments for the cancer itself. However, this does not mean that you can’t treat cancer while receiving palliative care. You can have palliative therapy at any point during your disease, whenever symptoms or side effects interfere with daily life. Other names for this therapy include symptom management and supportive care.

Many people think of palliative care as end-of-life care. While it can be part of terminal care, it is different. You do not have to be facing a terminal diagnosis to get palliative care. Hospice, on the other hand, is a form of palliative care that focuses on people with terminal illnesses. Hospice care for cancer patients is common when they are no longer seeking curative treatment. Talk with your doctor about hospice care if you are facing terminal lung cancer, breast cancer, or any other type of cancer. Make a plan for if, when and how you want this care.

Why is palliative cancer care performed?

You may want to consider palliative care in any of the following situations:

  • You need relief from symptoms or cancer treatment side effects, such as pain, nausea, loss of appetite, anxiety, and fatigue. You may need help at any stage of cancer or treatment.

  • Your cancer diagnosis involves physical or emotional pain and suffering.

  • You want more control over your treatment goals and your quality of life during cancer treatment.

  • Your cancer is progressing despite treatment.

  • You have been in the hospital multiple times in the last year for the same symptoms or problems.

  • You want to avoid the hospital and remain in your own home.

Who performs palliative cancer care?

Palliative care involves a team approach. A hospice and palliative care doctor will be part of that team. These doctors take care of the health needs of people with serious and terminal illnesses. They focus on your well-being as a whole person and not just your disease. They coordinate your palliative care with your other doctors, including your oncologist. Other members of the team can include nurses, home health aides, social workers, mental health providers, clergy members, and physical, occupational and speech therapists.

How is palliative cancer care performed?

You can receive palliative care at home. You can also find this type of care in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and nursing homes. The services that may be available to you include:

  • Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, biofeedback, guided imagery, hypnosis, and pet therapy

  • Assistance with medical decisions, such as exploring the pros and cons of your treatment options

  • Coordination of care, such as care from your other doctors including your oncologist, surgeon, or family doctor, and referrals to other healthcare providers

  • Counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (talk therapy), and emotional, psychosocial and spiritual support for you and your family

  • Medications, such as medicines to control pain, nausea, anxiety, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, and other symptoms

  • Physical therapy, such as hot and cold therapy, therapeutic massage, and exercise

  • Radiation therapy to ease pain, stop bleeding, and relieve pressure from tumors or other cancers

What are the benefits of palliative cancer care?

Researchers have discovered many potential benefits of palliative care. In the hospital, it may decrease the amount of time people spend in intensive care. It can also reduce the chances of needing to go back to the hospital after discharge. Cancer patients who receive palliative care tend to have less severe symptoms, including pain, nausea and depression. People with advanced cancer reported having a better quality of life and better mood, according to some studies. Palliative care may even extend survival.

The benefits aren’t just for the cancer patient. Researchers have also found that families as a whole are more satisfied and have a better sense of well-being when their loved one has palliative care.

How do I prepare for palliative cancer care?

Preparing for palliative cancer care means gathering information. Getting a thorough understanding of your palliative cancer care options is important. Make a list of questions to help you remember everything you want to ask your doctor. Questions you may want to ask include:

  • How can palliative care help with the symptoms or side effects I am having?

  • What will palliative care offer me that is different from what my other doctors and providers are doing?

  • What can palliative care do to address emotional and spiritual needs?

  • What kind of assistance is available for practical needs, such as employment and financial concerns?

  • What can palliative care offer for my family?

  • What role will my oncologist and other doctors play in my palliative care?

  • How much control will I have over my palliative care decisions?

  • How will I know if my palliative care plan is working or if we need to change it?

  • How long can I receive palliative care?

  • Does insurance cover palliative care?

Your palliative care team can be a vital part of your life with cancer. Make sure you know how and when to reach the various members. Find out what circumstances should prompt you to call and how to get in contact with team members. This should include contacts for after hours and emergencies.

What can I expect from palliative cancer care?

Palliative cancer care focuses on treating you as a whole person, not only someone with cancer. This encompasses a variety of needs, including physical, emotional, spiritual and practical. It also includes caregiver needs to support family members and loved ones. You can receive these palliative care services at any point, starting with a cancer diagnosis, through treatment, or end of life. Your palliative care team will review your needs and goals on a regular basis, and you can adjust your services at any time.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 26
  1. Caring for the Symptoms of Cancer and Its Treatment. American Society of Clinical Oncology. https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/palliative-care/caring-symptoms-cancer-and-its-treatment
  2. Frequently Asked Questions About Hospice and Palliative Care. American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. http://palliativedoctors.org/faq
  3. Guide to Palliative or Supportive Care. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/palliative-care/supportive-care-guide.html
  4. Hospice Care. National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. http://www.nhpco.org/about/hospice-care
  5. Palliative Care. National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. http://www.caringinfo.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3354
  6. Palliative Care in Cancer. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/care-choices/palliative-care-fact-sheet
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