When you have non-small -lung cancer (NSCLC), the disease and treatments for it can take a toll on how you feel. You may have pain, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, depression, and shortness of breath.
That’s where palliative care can help. This medical specialty focuses on easing pain, stress, and other symptoms to boost your quality of life. It’s made up of different therapies that help you feel better.
You’ll see a team of health care pros, including doctors, nurses, and social workers, that work together. Palliative care is sometimes called supportive care. You can get it before, during, and after your cancer treatment.
How Does Palliative Care Help?
Palliative care can provide medical, emotional, and practical support for:
- Fear, anxiety, and depression
- Chemotherapy and radiation side effects, such as vomiting and diarrhea
- Pain from surgery
- Shortness of breath
- Sleep problems and insomnia
- Loss of appetite
- Practical problems, such as insurance, legal, financial, and childcare issues
Your palliative care team can also help you navigate your NSCLC diagnosis and treatment plan. They can help you understand your options and goals. They’ll help communicate with family members and medical providers to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
Your loved ones can benefit from palliative care, too. Counseling or therapy can help them manage the stress of your diagnosis and treatment plan.
When Can You Get Palliative Care?
You can seek palliative care at any point after your diagnosis. For the best results, get it as early as possible. One study found that people who received palliative care shortly after an NSCLC diagnosis were less depressed and lived longer than those who didn’t. They also seemed to feel better.
You can move in and out of palliative care, and you can also stop it if you feel you no longer need it.
If your cancer no longer responds to treatment, it can help you feel more comfortable.
Palliative care is one part of hospice.
What Are Palliative Care Treatments?
Your palliative care team will prescribe treatments based on your symptoms and needs. Some of the main symptoms of NSCLC include shortness of breath, coughing, and pain. These symptoms can happen for different reasons, such as an airway blocked by a tumor or fluid buildup in the area surrounding the lungs or heart.
Palliative care treatments include:
- Palliative chemotherapy. Your doctor may prescribe chemotherapy to shrink your cancer, which may lessen pain and other symptoms.
- Palliative radiation. If the cancer has spread to your bones, spine, or brain, you may need radiation to ease the pain. A type of radiation called brachytherapy can treat the tumors that block airways. That’s when small amounts of radiation are placed inside your lungs.
- Procedures to treat fluid buildup around the lungs. To remove the fluid, your doctor inserts a needle through your lower back (called thoracentesis) or your chest (pleurodesis).
- Procedures to treat the fluid buildup around the heart. A doctor may use a needle to remove the fluid (periocardiocentesis). Or you may undergo surgery to remove a small piece of the sac around your heart, which allows the fluid to drain. This is called a pericardial window.
- Procedures to treat an airway blocked by a tumor. Laser therapy or light-activated drugs (called photodynamic therapy) can help with small tumors. For larger ones, a surgeon may need to put in a stent to keep the airway open.
- Pain medicine. These include NSAIDs, opioids, antidepressants, and steroids.
- Medicines to help you breathe better. Some medicines, such as bronchodilators, provide short-term relief.
- Oxygen therapy. You use a small, portable oxygen tank to breathe better.
- Medicines for treatment side effects. Medications can treat the nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, constipation, and insomnia caused by chemotherapy or radiation.
- Medicines for depression or anxiety. Depression and anxiety are common among people with NSCLC. Medications may help you feel better.
- Therapy or counseling. It can help you and your family deal with the emotions of having NSCLC.
- Nutrition therapy. A dietitian can ensure you’re getting the right nutrients and enough calories.
- Physical therapy. This therapy can improve your ability to exercise and move.
- Complementary therapies. Massage, guided imagery, acupuncture, and other therapies may help ease stress and pain.
Who Provides Palliative Care?
A team of specialists, including palliative care doctors and nurses, work together with your oncologist and other health care professionals.
Other members of your palliative care team may include:
- Social workers
- Respiratory therapists
- Chaplains and spiritual care advisors
- Massage therapists
How Do You Get Palliative Care?
Tell your doctor, nurses, and family members that you want palliative care. Ask your doctor how and where you can get palliative care. He or she can refer you to a specialist. You can also find one at getpalliativecare.org.
Where Is Palliative Care Done?
You may get palliative care at the hospital, outpatient clinic, treatment center, or long-term care facility.
A lot of the time, palliative care happens at home. That’s where you take your medication, or a loved one may call a counselor to get support.
Will Insurance Cover Palliative Care?
Private health insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid often cover palliative care. Sometimes it’s part of chronic, long-term, or hospice care. Your plan may only pay for certain types of palliative care. Or it may depend on where you receive treatment. Check with your insurance provider about what your plan covers.
American Cancer Society: “How and Where is Palliative Care Provided and How is it Paid For?” “Palliative Procedures for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer,” “What is Hospice?”
American Lung Association: “Palliative Care and Lung Cancer: Getting the Support You Need,” “Supportive (Palliative) Care for Lung Cancer,” “Understanding Palliative Care: It’s Not What You Think.”
Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “Diet and Nutrition in Cancer Survivorship and Palliative Care.”
Get Palliative Care: “Lung Cancer and Palliative Care.”
JAMA Oncology: “Association of Early Palliative Care Use with Survival and Place of Death Among Patients with Advanced Lung Cancer Receiving Care in the Veterans Health Administration."
John Hopkins Medicine: “Manage Shortness of Breath with Lung Cancer.”
Journal of Thoracic Oncology: “A Structured Exercise Program for Patients with Advanced Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer.”
LUNGevity: “Palliative Care.”
National Institute on Aging: “What at Palliative Care and Hospice Care?”
Surgical Clinics of North America: “Palliative Care in Lung Cancer.”
The Journal of Family Practice: “Palliative Care: Earlier is Better.”