What does the phrase “palliative care” mean to you? If you think of health care professionals who help someone with a serious, debilitating illness to manage pain, loss of appetite, depression and other associated issues, you’re on the right track. But if you think it’s end-of-life care, you are confusing it with hospice.
While hospice care may include palliative care to manage symptoms, palliative care is not limited to hospice care. In fact, where hospice care has a “start low and go slow” philosophy about medications, palliative care can involve very aggressive pain management to offset symptoms, such as the pain and nausea of cancer chemotherapy.
The priority is to improve quality of life, combining medications that ease debilitating symptoms with emotional and spiritual support for the patient and family.
Palliative Care Can Help to Extend Life
Not only does palliative care give the individual relief from emotional and physical suffering; it can also help to extend life. A recent article on palliative care in The New York Times cites a 2010 study at Mass General: a randomized trial of 151 patients with metastatic lung cancer who received early palliative care were less likely to suffer depression and scored significantly higher on quality of life measures than others who received only standard care. They also were less likely to seek aggressive treatment in their final weeks, but survived several months longer than the control group.
The earlier a patient receives palliative care, the better. A recent University of California, San Francisco study of 992 cancer patients who had died in their 60s and 70s found that those who received palliative care for 90 days or more had fewer late-life hospitalizations, ICU stays or ER visits than those who receive palliative support at a later stage of their disease.
When Should You Seek Palliative Care?
So when is it appropriate to seek palliative care for yourself or a loved one who suffers from cancer or any host of other severe diseases, including Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, congestive heart failure, ALS, stroke or even Alzheimer’s?
According to the Center to Advance Palliative Care, you can receive palliative care at any stage in a severe illness. Symptoms such as chronic pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, fatigue, anxiety, depression, lack of appetite, nausea or constipation can be eased with appropriate care and medications.
Far from the stereotypical view that this kind of treatment means the patient is giving up, about 40 percent of palliative care patients at the UC-San Francisco cancer center actually recovered from their illness. Whether the patient recovers or not, however, he or she regains a sense of control, with reduced pain and a renewed ability to appreciate whatever life still has to offer.
Palliative care has yet another benefit: it opens a window to discuss advance care end-of-life plans with your loved one, family and medical professionals.
How to Find Palliative Care Options
The Center to Advance Palliative Care website includes advice and resources for finding palliative care for you or your loved one. Start with a conversation with your physician. Ask about a referral to services in your area. Discuss treatments, side effects, alternatives and costs.
President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care™ manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.
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Image Credit: Karna Deshar