When you have a serious illness like cancer, the quality of your life is as important as the treatment you receive. That's why palliative care can make a big difference in how you feel and your sense of well-being.
Palliative care treats symptoms caused by cancer therapies using evidence-based medicine. That means treating physical side effects, like nausea, shortness of breath or back pain, so you can enjoy everyday activities. It also addresses emotional and mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety and stress, to help you cope with treatment.
Each patient taps into palliative care in different ways. That's why providers meet you where you are in your cancer journey. Some people choose palliative care early when they are first diagnosed. Others begin care when a disease progresses or near the end of life.
Whether you are actively receiving cancer therapy or not, the holistic approach of palliative care goes beyond treatment for the disease. It addresses the whole person, including your physical, mental and emotional health.
Palliative care serves as a bridge between medical treatment and your personal preferences for how you live your life. Providers work closely with your entire cancer care team to coordinate your care and give you the support you need throughout your journey.
Advance care planning is an important part of palliative care. Palliative care experts can give you the tools you need to make decisions about medical care you want if your health starts to decline. Your directives lift a burden from loved ones who may need to make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you are not able to communicate your preferences.
Open conversations with your family and caregivers give you a chance to express your wishes for care that is focused on symptoms and comfort. It's a way to discuss your goals of care and how they may change as life moves beyond cancer-directed treatments.
The difference between palliative care and hospice
Palliative care is about how you live with a complex, serious disease like cancer. You can start palliative care at any stage of illness and continue throughout treatment. In many cases, the supportive service can help you live longer, according to clinical studies. It also can help you avoid hospital stays and spend less money on medical care.
Transition to hospice care comes when cancer-directed treatment is no longer effective. Like palliative care, quality of life with hospice is of utmost importance. Hospice services focus on symptom-based medical care as life moves beyond disease-directed therapies.
A common misunderstanding is that hospice is only for the last days of life. Patients are eligible for hospice services when life expectancy is six months or less. Hospice offers patients emotional, physical and spiritual care as life takes its natural course.
If you have received a cancer diagnosis, talk to your oncologist about how palliative care and other support services can help you manage your mental, emotional and spiritual health. It can make all the difference in how you live each day.
Liz Nafziger, MD, is board certified in neurology and hospice and palliative medicine. Dr. Nafziger provides symptom management for patients with serious illnesses and assists with advanced care planning at Goshen Center for Cancer Care and NeuroCare Center Goshen Physicians.