Living with cancer involves not only treating the disease, but also managing the social, emotional and spiritual struggles. Incorporating palliative care is one way to receive treatment that focuses on all your challenges. Maybe you’ve heard of this service already, likely in relation to hospice. That’s because the common perception is that palliative treatment and care is only for people who are dying. It’s not. Palliative medicine is a patient-centered approach to managing your symptoms, putting your quality of life at the forefront.
What Does It Entail?
It’s an approach to care that considers you and your family holistically. “Some people with cancer, who aren’t dying, have symptoms out of control that have a significant, negative impact on their quality of life,” says Jody Reyes, administrator for cancer services at UVA Cancer Center. “The palliative care team, led by physicians with special training in addressing physical, psychosocial and spiritual problems, steps in to get them back on track.”
These specialists work with your doctor to get in front of your symptoms. When it comes to cancer treatment, pain, nausea, fatigue and depression are common problems. Knowing this, you, your doctor and palliative care specialists work together to assess your symptoms and address them when they begin. The primary focus of any consult is to understand your suffering and find ways to limit it.
For example, if you have nausea, a specialist will thoroughly review your medications to look for possible interactions that make nausea worse. She may then recommend changing medications or adding a new one to reduce the nausea. Likewise, if you suffer from depression, a palliative specialist will seek to understand the source. Is it because of the diagnosis? Or has your treatment caused you to quit an activity you love? Could light exercise or yoga help? Recommendations are tailored based on your unique struggles and personal values.
When and Where Is It Provided?
You can benefit from this type of care early in the treatment process. The World Health Organization’s definition emphasizes that this approach focuses on the “prevention and relief of suffering” through “early identification.” Many hospitals offer care of the palliative variety while people are hospitalized.
UVA Cancer Center is unique, as it has a robust outpatient clinic. The outpatient clinic gives patients a place to come when their symptoms begin getting difficult to manage — before hospitalization is needed. “We want to be proactive, anticipate issues and have interventions in place early on,” Reyes says. This service can be provided in the hospital, at the outpatient clinic and even at your home. If your disease reaches a point where a cure isn’t the goal any longer, palliative treatment is still there for you to relieve suffering, too.
How Does a Center Incorporate It?
At a comprehensive cancer center, like UVA, you have access to services like this one. The center views this service as an integral part of patient-centered care. UVA Cancer Center has received national recognition for its expertise in providing palliative care for outpatients. The Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) has identified UVA as one of 11 sites in the country doing this exceptionally well. UVA also established a train-the-trainer program, so professionals from other healthcare organizations come there to learn about their outpatient model and apply lessons in their own centers to continue grow this vital service.
Reyes emphasizes that cancer care, whatever it entails, takes a team approach of oncologists, dietitians, chaplains, nurses and palliative medicine specialists working together to provide comfort for you and a cure whenever possible.
If you're concerned about your symptoms or side effects at any point in your cancer treatment, talk to your doctor about palliative care.Learn More