Palliative care – also known as supportive care or comfort care – is a medical specialty that takes a whole health approach to treat the physical and mental symptoms of cancer and other critical illnesses.
The primary focus of palliative care is on a patient’s quality of life and personal needs, providing an added layer 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.
Research shows that palliative care not only improves a patient’s quality of life but also helps increase survival rates. So, what exactly is palliative care, and how can it help someone you love?
Increasingly, palliative care is considered a standard component of quality cancer care. Cancer patients can start receiving palliative care as soon as they are ready. Conversely, it’s never too late to begin palliative care at any point along a patient’s cancer journey. It’s available to patients of any age and at any stage of the disease.
A team of palliative care specialists can include not just doctors and nurses but also dieticians, therapists, psychologists, social workers, financial counselors, spiritual or religious professionals, patient navigators and more.
A comprehensive treatment plan for palliative care can address:
• Physical symptoms like pain, a reduction or loss of appetite, fatigue and insomnia, nausea and vomiting, and breathing difficulties;
• 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 such as financial or legal worries, employment, child or elder care, transportation or other practical concerns.
Palliative care is inherently individualized, a form of 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.
Support for caregivers and family members is an additional key component of palliative care. A cancer diagnosis can impact your loved ones, leaving them stressed and in need of their own support. Palliative care is available to caregivers, families and friends by offering them emotional support, guidance and coping mechanisms so they can better help their loved ones battle the disease.
It’s a common misconception — palliative care and hospice care are interchangeable. They are not. Hospice care is a type of palliative care offered to patients in the last phases of an incurable disease or near the end of their lives.
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, while hospice care is typically delivered during the last six months of life.
Like their palliative care counterparts, 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.
Immediately after a cancer diagnosis or at any time thereafter, patients should speak with their oncologists about how to access palliative care. Possible questions to ask the 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, such as a patient navigator, to begin coordinating your supportive care. Another valuable resource: several national organizations that have databases of potential palliative care providers.
The Center for Advance Palliative Care lists providers by state. You can also find providers through the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization. And if you are looking for financial support, our Partners in Care charitable foundation is here to help you and your loved ones in your fight against cancer, providing financial and emotional support as well as other resources that better allow patients to focus on their healing journeys.
Kathy Tolentino is executive director of the Fort Myers-based Partners in Care Foundation. To learn more, visit yourpartnersincare.org/apply