Palliative Care - Finding Symptom Relief

by Jane Ashley

Confused about what palliative care is? Has someone suggested that you receive palliative care but you’re afraid that it’s the same thing as hospice? There is quite a bit of confusion about palliative care and how it may benefit cancer patients.

Palliative Care   Finding Symptom Relief

What is palliative care?

Palliative care seeks to relieve a patient’s symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life. Palliative care provides patients relief from both the symptoms of their disease and the symptoms created by their treatment.

By providing symptom relief, palliative care helps many people live longer and/or fully recover from a serious, debilitating illness. Both the patient and their family are less anxious when serious quality-of-life symptoms are controlled. These symptoms include pain, loss of appetite and anxiety and/or depression.

Palliative doctors receive special training and may use a “team” approach for patients. This team may include physicians, nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, social workers, nonmedical workers and volunteers to provide support to a patient facing a serious illness or complex surgery.

What is the difference between palliative care and hospice care?

Palliative care helps bring symptom relief regardless of whether their disease can be cured or not. Patients receive treatment for their disease while receiving palliative care for their symptoms. Hospice is a specialized form of palliative care for patients who are not expected to live beyond six months. Simply put, hospice care is always classified as palliative care, but palliative care is not always hospice care . The difference is whether a patient is receiving treatment for their illness.

Who benefits from palliative care?

Cancer patients receiving aggressive treatment are a perfect example of the kind of patient who benefits from palliative care. Typically, Stage III and Stage IV patients might experience physical symptoms not only from their disease but also from their treatments. 

Who Provides Palliative Care

A palliative care team is multidisciplinary – that is, the team is made of experts in multiple fields from pain management to physiological and from nutrition to spiritual matters. This team of healthcare professionals works with a patient’s oncology team so that their treatment stays on schedule instead of being delayed by side effects.

What issues are addressed with palliative care?

• Pain. First and foremost, palliative care teams are well versed in pain management. Tumors press on nerves, the spine, or on other organs of the body and cause pain. When cancer spreads to the bones, patients often have severe bone pain. The aftermath of complex surgeries may leave patients with debilitating pain. Chemotherapy can cause neuropathy resulting in numbness and pain. Palliative care pain specialists are trained for complex pain management issues found in serious diseases like cancer. They have extensive training and experience in the use of opioids and other pain relief methods to provide optimum pain relief while allowing the patient to be fully functional.
• Other physical issues. While every cancer diagnosis is different, the physical complaints among cancer patients are similar. The four most common places for metastases of most kinds of cancer are the bones, brain, liver and lungs. Many cancer patients suffer from shortness of breath, constipation and/or diarrhea, weight loss, nausea/vomiting, fatigue and insomnia. The various specialists on the palliative care team are “experts” in utilizing less well-known relief methods to these common problems.
• Anxiety and depression. The physical effects of anxiety, fear, insomnia and depression are under-appreciated. Patients may also be embarrassed to admit to their oncologist, surgeon or radiology oncologist that their anxiety and/or fear of treatment is part of the reason that they are delaying treatment. Depression may be the cause for patients to refuse additional treatment because they have given up hope. Trained professionals help both the patient and their family members cope with the emotional issues of cancer treatment. Fear of disfigurement from potentially curative surgery impacts many patients. Fear of losing one’s breasts or a limb or having an ostomy might be the cause that a patient refuses potentially curative surgery. It’s important for a family member to communicate undue anxiety or fear on the patient’s part to the lead member of the patient’s oncology team so that the patient receives help combating these kinds of emotional distress.
• Spiritual. The diagnosis of cancer is one of the most difficult diagnoses faced. Spiritual questions regarding death, “why me?” or what about my family may seriously impact a patient’s ability to continue treatments or will to live. Chaplains or clergy can help patients find peace of mind and/or acceptance of their particular circumstances.
• The caregiver. Spouses can become overwhelmed providing care to the patient while trying to keep their job that provides the health insurance. Adult children may disagree about their mother or father’s care and/or how to delegate caregiving responsibilities. A palliative care team member offers options that family members may not have known about so that they can provide the physical and emotional help the patient needs.
• Practical problems. Lastly, a palliative care team member can help with practical issues like insurance, financial and legal questions. They can answer employment questions about short-and-long term disability or if your condition may qualify you for Social Security disability.

Get Started Today

Today is the right day to consider if palliative care might help you feel better and more positive about your cancer treatment. Think about how you feel, both physically and mentally. Are you always nauseated? Have you lost a lot of weight? Do you always feel anxious? Can’t sleep? Are you thinking about stopping your treatment?

These are all signs that palliative care might be an answer to your prayers. Especially if you have complex medical issues (like diabetes or heart disease or an autoimmune disease) along with your diagnosis of cancer, interaction between the drugs you have to take for your other medical issues and the new symptoms from your cancer treatment require a skilled team to help you overcome pain, anxiety and weight loss.
Learn more about what palliative care offers by looking at this video from the American Cancer Society.

Do you have experience with Palliative Care? Please share them in the comments below. How was your experience, how did it work, were you satisfied?

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