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Coping With a Life-Threatening Illness

Palliative Care: Improving Life for Patients and Caregivers
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

"I'm sorry, but there's nothing more we can do."

No patient wants to hear that. No doctor wants to say it. And with good reason: It isn't true.

It is true that in the course of many illnesses, cure ceases to be an option.

But no hope of a sure cure does not mean no hope at all. It certainly does not mean there is nothing more to be done.

When you receive the information that your illness is serious, a palliative care team can help you handle the news and cope with the many questions and challenges you'll face.

Many people associate palliative care with end-of-life care. Although all end-of-life care includes palliative care, not all palliative care is end-of-life care.

The palliative care team works alongside the doctors working to extend your life and, if possible, to cure your illness. By relieving your symptoms, the palliative care team may actually help you improve.

This approach to care is for anyone with a serious, life-threatening illness, whether they're expected to live for years or for months or for just days.

"Our role is to help people live with a serious illness as long as possible, as well as possible," says Sean Morrison, MD, director of the National Palliative Care Research Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Coping With the News

"You can be the most intelligent, organized person in the world, but hearing distressing news about your condition makes it hard to keep things straight," says Farrah Daly, MD, associate medical director for Capital Caring, which serves more than 1,000 clients in the Washington, D.C. area.

That makes it hard to ask the right questions -- and easy to misunderstand the answers.

Daly's advice:

  • Bring someone with you to significant medical appointments. Let the other person do whatever it is you need: ask additional questions, write down information, or just be a fly on the wall and listen. "They should support you in whatever way you need to be supported."
  • Ask as many questions as you need. Don't worry about asking the same questions over again. "A lot of people come out of discussions like this with misconceptions, because they didn't want to seem like they didn't understand, so they didn't press their doctor for more information."
  • Try to keep an open mind. "Often, people interpret the news as worse than it actually is. "

What does Daly mean by that?

"When doctors start focusing on managing symptoms rather than on a cure, people's lives often improve," she says. "And the time frame that you have left can vary widely. A lot of times, people can manage symptoms for years. When you are involved with palliative care earlier, symptoms are better managed, and you have more support in terms of making difficult decisions. Certainly people can do better than they might ever expect."

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