Cancer: Palliative Care and Quality of Life
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
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
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.