What is Palliative Care?
Palliative care is a style of medical care that focuses on the care of the person as a whole. A common misconception is that palliative care is meant for end of life only. But it’s actually based on the foundation of living well at any stage, from initial breast cancer diagnosis to end of life and anywhere in between.
This is accomplished by being treated by a comprehensive medical team whose goal is to manage physical, psychological and spiritual suffering for patients facing a life-threatening or life-limiting illness. Palliative care aims to improve the quality of life for both patients and their families. For families, palliative care can include emotional support and education related to the patient’s health.
A PC team focuses on relieving the symptoms related to a disease or disorder and its treatment. With cancer, this often includes evaluating different surgery and treatment options and relieving side effects of breast cancer treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Palliative care is meant to align with other treatments.
Palliative care focuses on the quality of life. But recent research shows it may also help patients improve more quickly and with better results. An example could be receiving acupuncture during chemotherapy with the goal to reduce the intensity of side effects.
How is Palliative Care Different From Hospice?
Hospice is a type of Palliative Care. It is designed for patients for whom a cure is no longer possible and typically have a prognosis of less than 6 months. Hospice focuses on comfort care and dignity at the end of one’s life. Receiving palliative care is not a precursor for hospice care nor is it solely for end-of-life
Hospice, like palliative care, includes care for the patient’s family. For patients receiving hospice, the family is provided support and made aware of what can be expected at the end of life. If desired, they are also provided with grief and bereavement support as well as respite
Unlike hospice, palliative care does not replace your primary medical providers. Instead, palliative care serves as an additional layer of support in conjunction with your established medical team.
What Can I Expect as Part of Palliative Care?
In palliative care, you would be seen by a comprehensive medical team. This could include physicians, nurses, social workers, pharmacists and dieticians. Depending on your needs, it may also include chaplains, physical therapists, occupational therapists and other professionals.
The most important team members, though, are you and your loved ones.
While on palliative care, you are in charge of your care. It is imperative that you voice your needs, no matter what they are.
What Information Will My Palliative Care Team Need From Me?
More than your general medical information, your palliative care team will want to get to know you. Common questions include:
- What makes your life meaningful?
- How do you live well?
- What makes you happy?
- What are your worries/fears?
- What are your religious/spiritual needs?
- What keeps you going when life’s challenges are overwhelming?
- What would you like to continue to do while in treatment?
Some common wishes expressed by patients in palliative care include wanting to be treated with dignity and respect while being able to continue their lives and be part of their communities. Patients want the best treatment and assistance in evaluating what that may be for them. They also want their families to be adequately supported throughout their care. Make sure your palliative care team knows what your wishes are.
How Do I Include Palliative Care as Part of My Breast Cancer Treatment?
Through treatment, you’re assembling the best cancer care team you can. Palliative care may be covered by health insurance, but you will need to check with your insurance provider.
Most major hospitals and cancer centers have a palliative care team. Ask your doctor for a consult. Tell them that you’d like to talk to a palliative care team. Alternatively, you can talk to your doctor about your quality of life goals and treatment goals.
You deserve to live well during breast cancer treatment. Your needs deserve to be met, no matter what they are. It is up to you to advocate for those needs and help craft a treatment plan that works best for you.
This blog was adapted from YSC’s Shady Pink Elephant End of Life Series with Kate Adelstein of the University of Virginia. Watch the full webinar here.