If you have cancer, you might benefit from palliative care — a type of treatment that focuses on improving quality of life.
This type of supportive care is considered a whole-body approach. It addresses a person’s physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs.
Some people choose to have palliative care when their standard treatments stop working, but you can have it at any time during the course of your disease.
Palliative care can be given along with traditional medical therapy, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
How Palliative Care Works
Palliative care is sometimes referred to as “supportive care” or “comfort care.”
The goal of this treatment isn’t to cure a particular disease, but to help or prevent or improve any symptoms that might make you uncomfortable.
Palliative care is given in hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, and even at home. Your palliative care team will work closely with your oncologist and other doctors.
Typically, a palliative care program will address the following issues:
- Physical Complaints Problems such as pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, insomnia, vomiting, and shortness of breath are all managed with palliative care.
- Emotional Concerns Palliative care specialists are trained to help with depression, fear, anxiety, and other emotional issues that come up.
- Caregiver Struggles Family members who care for cancer patients often face challenges. Palliative care can offer support.
- Spiritual Needs Experts are trained to help people find peace in their spiritual lives.
- Practical Issues A palliative care specialist may be able to help with financial, legal, employment, and other practical concerns that may arise.
Palliative care is available for both adults and children with cancer, as well as other illnesses.
Palliative Care Team
A group of specialists typically provides this type of support.
Your palliative care team might include the following professionals:
- Palliative care physician
- Social worker
- Pain-management specialist
- Chaplain or another religious counselor
- Physical therapist (PT)
- Occupational therapist (OT)
- Grief counselor
- Patient navigator
- Child life specialist
Ideally, these experts will work together to help provide you with optimum comfort and care.
Palliative Care Approaches
Palliative care therapies vary and will depend on your particular needs.
Some common approaches used as part of palliative care include:
- Medications to ease pain or discomfort
- Talk therapy
- Relaxation techniques
- Nutritional support
- Emotional support
- Spiritual guidance
- Complementary medicine strategies
Your medical team can help you decide which therapies will benefit you the most.
Palliative Care Research
Many studies have shown palliative care can be beneficial. Research has found that people with chronic illnesses who receive palliative care report less pain, a better quality of life, less shortness of breath, less nausea, and fewer episodes of depression.
Patients who have palliative care in a hospital spend less time in intensive care units and are less likely to be readmitted to the hospital.
Researchers found that palliative care significantly reduces end-of-life hospitalizations and procedures in Medicare patients with advanced cancer. (1)
One study suggested that the use of palliative care may increase survival. Investigators found lung cancer patients who received palliative care along with standard cancer treatment lived nearly three months longer than those who didn’t receive palliative care. (2)
Another study found that people with advanced cancer who received palliative care along with normal cancer treatment reported better mood and quality of life. (3)
The Difference Between Palliative Care and Hospice
Sometimes, the terms “palliative care” and “hospice care” are used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same.
Hospice care is a special type of palliative care that’s provided when a person is expected to live six months or less. (4) In contrast, palliative care can be offered any time during a person’s cancer journey.
While palliative care can be given along with medical therapies to aggressively treat your cancer, hospice typically focuses on treatments that will provide comfort.
It’s important to know that choosing hospice care doesn’t mean you’ve given up on fighting your disease, you’re just shifting the focus of the therapy away from treating the cancer and toward treating the patient’s symptoms.
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Who Should Get Palliative Care?
The American Cancer Society recommends that all people with serious illnesses who have symptoms get palliative care.
It’s best to start palliative care when you’re first diagnosed with advanced cancer and continue until the end of life or until it’s no longer needed.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends that all patients with advanced cancer get palliative care early on, along with their normal cancer therapies. The organization also suggests that newly diagnosed patients with advanced cancer should be offered palliative care within eight weeks of diagnosis. (4)
How to Get Palliative Care
If you’re interested in palliative care, ask your doctor for a referral. He or she may be able to recommend a palliative care specialist.
Who Pays for Palliative Care?
Typically, private health insurance companies cover palliative care services, but this will depend on your particular plan.
Medicare and Medicaid may pay for some types of palliative care, but coverage varies by state.
Check with a social worker or your hospital’s financial counselor if you’re uninsured or don’t think your health insurance will cover palliative care.
The Growth of Palliative Care
According to the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC), about six million Americans could benefit from palliative care. (5)
The number of hospitals in the United States offering palliative care programs has been growing steadily over the past 20 years.
In fact, the CAPC reports that as of 2019, 72 percent of hospitals with 50 or more beds had a palliative care team, compared to just 7 percent in 2001. (5)
The CAPC also estimates that if palliative care were fully implemented in U.S. hospitals, it could save $6 billion per year. (5)
As more people with cancer are living longer, many are recognizing the benefits of palliative care services.
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