Why You Need Palliative Care — Even If Your Cancer Isn’t Terminal

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The World Health Organization defines palliative care as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”

In other words, palliative care is a type of health care that, rather than focusing on the patient’s recovery, centers on comfort and quality of life of both patients and their families. It aims to relieve symptoms rather than eliminate the disease. Because of this, many people who don’t know much about palliative care assume it’s only for people who are dying, people who will no longer be pursuing traditional treatments and just want to make the most of what’s left of their lives.

But what if you could have the best of both worlds?

Too few people even know what palliative care is, let alone that it can be used by people who aren’t terminally ill. But palliative care can be used across a wide range of serious diseases at different stages, not all of which are terminal. It’s an underused system that has the potential to benefit the lives of so many more people than it currently does.

Here’s a brief explanation of the difference between palliative care for those expected to survive cancer and palliative care in the terminally ill:

Photo: Adobe Stock/Ocskay Mark

Photo: Adobe Stock/Ocskay Mark

Palliative Care for Early Stage Cancer

In the early stages of breast cancer, your palliative care provider is only there to help relieve your symptoms and help you cope with the stress of cancer treatments, which can be grueling. They can give you tips and remedies to help you lessen any pain, nausea, and fatigue you may be feeling. And that, in turn, helps you feel more positive, decreases your odds of suffering from depression, and increases your chances of survival. A palliative care provider can also help you learn to cope with the emotional toll of having breast cancer and teach you how to talk to others more comfortably and effectively about what you’re going through. They can even assist you as you work through issues like your body image and sexuality.

At this stage, palliative care does not replace any treatments you’re undergoing to eliminate your cancer. Rather, it works alongside curative measures to maintain your quality of life and help you get better faster.

Palliative Care for Metastatic Cancer

Hospice and end-of-life care also fall under the palliative care umbrella, and although the anticipated outcome is much different, the goals of the care are much the same. Again, pain management and keeping the symptoms of the disease (and the side effects of any treatment the patient is still doing) under control. In this case, a palliative care provider can also help the patient and family get grief counseling, understand and decide on care and treatment options, and work through emotional and spiritual issues.

If you’re wondering whether palliative care is right for you, ask your doctor for a referral. Your oncology team may already have palliative care providers on their staff ready to help you, and both in-hospital and outpatient services are available to most patients. Many doctors still equate palliative care with end-of-life care, however, so be proactive about getting care for yourself rather than waiting for your doctor to bring it up.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?