New Brunswick, N.J., August 12, 2021 – There are many misconceptions about the purpose of palliative care and what it involves. Many people think that it is simply end-of-life care, or that it means stopping cancer treatment. For cancer patients undergoing treatments, palliative care can provide excellent pain and symptom management that can help them feel better. It can also address the challenges that could keep patients from receiving further cancer treatments due to uncontrolled symptoms. In certain cases, an approach of combined palliative care along with cancer treatments can help increase both quality of life and improve overall survival.
Samantha Nagengast, MD, is the director of the Palliative Medicine and Supportive Care Program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, an RWJBarnabas Health facility. She along with M. Hamza Habib MD, FACP, FAAHPM, MRCP, director of Outpatient Palliative Medicine and Cancer Pain Service at Rutgers Cancer Institute, and oncologist and palliative medicine physician Elizabeth Poplin MD, collaborate on the management of palliative care for patients with cancer. They answer common questions about how palliative care can enhance quality of life and survival rates for this population.
What is palliative care?
Palliative care is a subspecialty of medicine that focuses on the comprehensive treatment of pain and symptoms accompanying many serious illnesses, including cancer. In cancer settings, palliative care helps patients do their best, both physically and mentally while receiving disease directed treatments like chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Palliative care teams work in partnership with medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, and radiation oncologists to provide an extra layer of support for the patient and their caregivers. Research shows that patients that are referred earlier to palliative care live longer and have a higher quality of life with good overall pain and symptom control.
What is the difference between palliative care and hospice care?
Hospice focuses on end of life care when patients decide to no longer receive cancer treatment. The goal of palliative care, on the other hand, is to make sure patients do their best from a pain and symptoms standpoint while they continue to get their cancer treatments. In cancer settings, the oncologist manages the cancer, while the palliative care team manages the symptoms of cancer and side effects of related treatments. It is a combined team effort to help patients live longer with a better quality of life. Unfortunately, there are times when the cancer is not curable. In this scenario, the palliative care team works with patients and their families to aid with difficult decision making that preserves dignity and quality at the end of life.
What are some issues patients might experience that palliative care helps to address?
Palliative care focuses on a patient’s “total pain,” a concept of multi-dimensional pain that stems from not only physical pain, but also from pain of multiple deeply personal, social, cultural and existential worries that come with the diagnosis of cancer. In addition, palliative care can help with other physical symptoms like nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, insomnia, and many others. Moreover, palliative care can help patients and their caregivers cope with mental stressors like depression, anxiety, grief, and financial worries while going through cancer and its treatment.
Finally, most palliative care teams offer a holistic approach to patient care, and work closely with other services like nutrition and physical therapy. They also work closely with social workers and therapists to help provide an extra layer of spiritual and emotional support through cancer and its treatments.
What should a patient expect if receiving palliative care?
The palliative care team focuses on each patient’s individual concerns, and tailors their treatments to their customized needs at all stages of illness. Patients can expect personalized treatments based on their specific physical and emotional needs.
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