Palliative Therapy for Cancer Patients

When Should Palliative Treatment Be Used and How Does It Help?

What is palliative care for cancer patients?.

Palliative treatment is defined as a treatment designed to decrease pain and suffering.

Palliative Therapy vs Hospice Care

It's perhaps best to begin defining palliative therapy by what it is not. Palliative therapy is not hospice care. Palliative care does share some common goals with hospice care, but in other ways, they are very different. Palliative treatment may be used even for people with cancer who have early, very curable cancers. Hospice is one type of palliative care that is used in the last months of life.  

Goal of Palliative Care

Palliative care is more of a treatment philosophy than any one particular treatment. It aims at reducing pain and suffering by thoroughly addressing all concerns—physical, emotional, and spiritual.

It is true that palliative care is distinguished from curative therapy. Most people will receive conventional treatments such as surgery chemotherapy, and radiation therapy through their oncologist at the same time as they receive palliative care. Palliative care is used at the same time to address the symptoms caused by the cancer and the treatments for the cancer.

What Symptoms Does Palliative Care Address?

Palliative care can address symptoms such as:

  • Pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Physical limitations
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Depression, anxiety, and grief
  • Family discord and role changes induced by cancer
  • Spiritual issues such as questioning life's meaning and anger at living with cancer

What Is Meant by Palliative Chemotherapy or Palliative Radiation Therapy

If you've heard about palliative chemotherapy, it may lead to some confusion about what palliative care really is. Palliative chemotherapy is just one specific type of palliative care. It would be like saying that caring for a newborn is about changing diapers. Palliative chemotherapy is chemotherapy that is not given as an attempt to cure cancer, but rather, to improve the symptoms of cancer. For example, palliative chemotherapy may be given in order to reduce the size of a cancer so that it would put less pressure on bones, and consequently help with pain. In this setting it's unlikely that the chemotherapy would "cure" the cancer, hence it is palliative.

Palliative radiation therapy is used in a similar way. The goal is to decrease pain even if the radiation in unable to cure cancer.

Your Palliative Care Team

Palliative care is by definition given by a team, and the most important member of that team is you. Through careful communication, these people with different specialties work with your input to design a treatment plan meant to make your quality of life as good as possible. Members of your team—in addition to yourself—may include:

  • A palliative care physician or other health care specialist
  • A nurse
  • A social worker
  • A chaplain
  • A physical therapy or respiratory therapist

This team also works closely with your oncologist and other physicians, so each are aware of the impact of the others treatments and recommendations on your well-being.

When Should Palliative Care Be Started?

Palliative care should ideally begin at the time of a cancer diagnosis and can be started anytime thereafter. 

How Can I Get a Palliative Care Consult?

Some of the larger cancer centers now offer a palliative care consult at the time someone is diagnosed. Since the whole concept of palliative care is fairly new (though studies have shown its positive impact for some time) you may need to request a consult. If you don't hear about palliative care don't assume that your doctor decided it wouldn't be beneficial for you. With cancer, our first goal is to tackle the cancer, and issues such as quality of life sometimes get lost on the back burner for a time.

If your doctor is unaware of palliative care specialists in your medical center, check out these ideas on finding palliative care Your support group or cancer community may have recommendations as well.

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