Palliative Care and Quality of Life

Medically Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on May 31, 2016
3 min read

"Palliative care" means care that makes you feel better but doesn’t treat your disease. It's a term often linked to late-stage illness and hospice care. And while it can ease the way for people in the later stages of cancer, it’s something you should think about no matter what your diagnosis is.

The goal is to help you feel better and stay active while you’re getting treatment. Your doctor and other health care professionals will work as a team to treat your cancer, pain, nausea, fatigue, breathing problems, or stress.

“Some people try to keep a stiff upper lip and not admit that they need help. Or they may panic when they find out they have cancer,” says Albert A. Rizzo, MD, chief of pulmonary and critical care at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, DE. But palliative care can reduce your symptoms so you feel as good as you can and have as high a quality of life as possible.”

For people with non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC), palliative care may include:

  • Drugs or supplements to ease nausea, pain, or fatigue
  • Oxygen therapy to help with shortness of breath
  • Counseling to lower stress or anxiety
  • Nutrition advice to keep your weight and energy levels high

This type of care isn’t designed to fight the disease. But often it helps your cancer treatments do a better job.

Why? Because your immune system isn’t working as hard to fight pain, stress, or nausea, says Patricia Thompson, MD, medical director of thoracic oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Atlanta.

She believes lung cancer patients should start palliative care with their first visit to a cancer doctor. “When I first talk to a patient who is newly diagnosed with lung cancer, you can see that they feel like they are in the twilight zone. Their head is spinning,” she says.

Your oncologist will go over your symptoms and examine you to see what kind of palliative care is right for you, Thompson says.  The care should be tailored to your needs. Your doctor can adjust it as they change.

Many large hospitals have palliative care specialists on staff to work with you, Rizzo says. Your doctor can also refer you to therapists in your area. Some possible team members:

Oxygen therapistsor nurses ease shortness of breath with supplemental oxygen tanks.

Nutritionists or dietitians keep your weight healthy so you can keep your strength and energy levels up. They’ll suggest foods that you’ll enjoy eating if your treatments make everything taste bad, if you have nausea, or if you’ve lost your appetite.

Pain specialists prescribe drugs to ease your pain.

Naturopathic doctors treat symptoms, side effects, or stress with natural therapies. They may use herbs and supplements and teach you meditation, exercises, or ways to relax. For example, they may give you zinc or ginger to help ease nausea from chemo.

Psychologists, counselors, wellness coaches, and social workers teach you how to manage stress and worry while keeping your spirits up. Your hospital may have patient care advocates who help you fill out medical forms or understand your care options. You can see a minister or other religious leader if you want, too.

Palliative care can help you manage lung cancer’s effects on your life, too, Rizzo says.

You’ll handle your treatment better and have a brighter outlook and feel better during your treatment and beyond.

Caregivers also need support, he adds. “Palliative care specialists can be a sounding board or help you ask the doctor the right questions about treatment options.”

The goal is to help you stay active so you enjoy your life, Thompson says. Bring up any symptoms or fears with your doctor. She can make sure you can have treatments on hand in case a problem comes up.

Most of all, it gives you a positive view of your life beyond cancer. “Hope is very important. That may be hope for a cancer cure or hope that you can control your symptoms,” Thompson says. “Why treat my patients if I cannot make them feel better?”