Palliative care programs were initially started to palliate the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of cancer treatments. Palliative care is now being offered to many other patients with chronic illnesses but the majority of patients treated in palliative care programs nationwide are still cancer patients.
The benefits of palliative care for cancer patients is significant. Cancers often cause distressing symptoms that need expert care. Symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, nausea and/or vomiting, and constipation may be cancer related and each have a negative impact on quality of life. Palliative care teams are specially trained to deal with these, and other, distressing symptoms.
Even the treatments used to treat cancer can be considered palliative. Chemotherapy and radiation can reduce tumor size and thereby reduce symptoms of disease. Doctors will sometimes recommend chemotherapy and/or radiation intended to increase comfort and decrease symptoms of disease, termed palliative chemotherapy or palliative radiation. This type of palliative treatment is not intended to cure cancer, rather to improve quality of life.
Treating cancers with chemotherapy, radiation, hormones, and other modules of treatments can create other problems that need to be dealt with. Nausea and vomiting, appetite loss, oral thrush infections, skin problems, and decreased sexual function are just some of the symptoms that can result from cancer treatment. Expert palliative care can often times help patients tolerate cancer treatment for longer periods of time with less discomfort.
Research has shown that cancer patients who receive palliative care actually live longer. Once thought to be strictly end-of-life care, palliative care is now reaching patients much earlier. Palliative care teams across the nation are pushing for palliative care to begin at the time of cancer diagnosis. The longer a cancer patient and his loved one have with a palliative care team, the more likely he is to live longer, receive the emotional and spiritual support he needs, and plan ahead for his future.
Temel, J., et al. "Early Palliative Care for Patients with Metastatic Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer" New England Journal of Medicine 2010; 363:733-742.