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Coping With a Life-Threatening Illness

Palliative Care: Improving Life for Patients and Caregivers
(continued)

Coping With Anxiety

How do you handle the fears and anxiety associated with a life-threatening illness? First, do your best to know what to expect (as far as that's possible). Anxiety is often related to the unknown.

Ask your doctor:

  • What symptoms should I expect, and what are you going to do to treat them?
  • If I'm going to have pain, how will we manage it?
  • How do I reach my doctor and palliative care team in an emergency? "There's nothing worse than being in serious pain or having shortness of breath and not being able to do anything except call 911," says Morrison.

You should also make sure you have a support team around you. That includes family and friends, of course, but remember that they are anxious about your illness as well.

"It's important to have an impartial, less emotional person to talk to," says Daly. "A support group for people with your illness, or a social worker at your hospital or medical center, can help you talk about your fears without feeling like you're overwhelming your loved ones."

You can also take your mind off your anxiety by finding time to do the things you love, things that you might not have been able to do when focused intently on a cure.

"One of the burdens of curative treatment is it often takes a lot of time," says Daly. "You go to the doctor's office, come home and rest, go to the infusion center, come home and rest, go to a specialist, come home and rest. That's OK, but it's a burden of treatment. Use the freedom you have from that burden to enjoy yourself. Be critical about how you're spending your time, because time is precious."

Coping With Pain

The first thing you need to know about pain is that it can be treated.

"There shouldn't be the expectation that you have to live with it," says Morrison. "In fact, there's data showing that untreated pain will lessen your ability to function and may even shorten your life, so it's important to treat it early."

Some things you should know about pain management in palliative care:

  • Treating your pain early doesn't mean that treatments will not be effective later.
  • Treating pain does not lessen your ability to recognize if a therapy is working or if your disease is advancing. "Pain should not be used as a marker for whether or not a treatment is working," says Morrison.
  • You are not likely to become addicted to pain medication. "And if you do have such a history, we can manage that as well. Just because you have that history doesn't mean you need to suffer. You just need more specialized care," Morrison says.
  • Side effects of pain medication can be managed too. "Constipation, nausea, and cognitive changes can be side effects of pain medication," says Morrison. "But we can treat those too. Nobody should be in pain because of fear of medication side effects."
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