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What to Expect From Palliative Care

The goal of comprehensive palliative care is to address the full range of problems associated with a serious illness, from physical symptoms to emotional anxiety and even spiritual concerns.

  • Cancer and its treatment can cause pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and an array of other symptoms.
  • A serious illness can also put a heavy emotional and financial burden on family members.

To address all those challenges, a palliative care team typically includes a doctor or nurse, a psychologist or counselor, a pain management specialist, a social worker, a nutritionist, a chaplain, and others.

The first step is assessing a patient’s condition and quality of life. Experts have developed standard questionnaires that help doctors quickly identify where problems exist, such as uncontrolled pain, anxiety, fatigue, depression, or sleep problems.

How Palliative Care Can Help

Fortunately, there’s plenty that palliative care specialists can offer.

  • For shortness of breath, doctors can prescribe medications that open up air passages or they can give patients extra oxygen. Sometimes simply changing position in bed is enough to ease breathing difficulties.
  • Nausea, which is a common side effect of some chemotherapy drugs, can be alleviated with medications.
  • Loss of appetite, another common side effect, can be addressed with dietary changes and a schedule of eating several small meals during the day.

Palliative Care Takes a Holistic Approach

In many ways, palliative care builds on the model of holistic medicine, which was developed to treat not just a disease but the person experiencing it. “Oncologists treat cancer as a physical process,” Bruera says. “Palliative medicine addresses all the components of the illness.”

A growing number of programs combine conventional treatments with complementary approaches -- meditation, acupuncture, and massage therapy, for instance.

Treating cancer and managing side effects and symptoms can be complicated. It’s natural to feel depressed when you’re fighting cancer, for example. Talking to a counselor can help. But depression may also be a sign that pain isn’t being adequately controlled. For that, doctors may need to prescribe opioid drugs. These are very effective, but they also have side effects. One common problem, constipation, may be treated with laxatives.

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