By Ramy Sedhom, MD
It is not uncommon for patients who have received a cancer diagnosis, or for those undergoing cancer treatment, to experience fatigue, pain and discomfort, nausea, vomiting and stress or anxiety.
Fortunately, patients can find relief from these symptoms through palliative care.
For patients with cancer, palliative care is meant to prevent or treat, as early as possible, the symptoms and side effects of cancer and treatment, as well as related psychological, social, and spiritual issues.
There is a common misperception that palliative care is an end-of-life service. In fact, it is specially designed to help patients live well with cancer and other serious illnesses.
At Penn Medicine Princeton Cancer Center, a multidisciplinary palliative care team works with patients, and their families, who have been diagnosed with advanced cancer to establish goals of care and improve quality of life.
What Is palliative care?
Palliative care is specialized medical care that aims to address the patient as a whole and focuses beyond their tumor or disease. It employs an interdisciplinary team of physicians, including the patient’s oncologist and primary care doctor, a palliative care physician, and nurses. Together, they develop an individualized plan to manage the patient’s unique symptoms and address how the disease impacts caregivers.
Palliative care can be provided at any point during cancer care and can be delivered concurrently with any cancer treatment that a patient may receive.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends that all patients with advanced cancer receive palliative care within eight weeks of diagnosis.
What does palliative care include?
Palliative care can include:
• Management of emotional and physical symptoms, including complex pain, anxiety, and depression, through prescription medication or other non-pharmacologic interventions.
• Emotional and spiritual support services to help address mental health needs.
• Coping strategies related to cancer, its treatment, or side effects.
• Help with advance care planning and clear communication about what to expect in the future. This can help guide the patient in understanding and sharing their personal preferences regarding their medical care and priorities.
• Referrals to other support services that may benefit a patient.
• Legacy building, which helps the patient celebrate their life by sharing their story. For example, a patient might be encouraged to create a scrapbook or photo album to highlight past experiences or memories and that can be shared with others.
• Support for the patient’s caregivers and family, and bereavement care.
Palliative care differs from hospice care. A patient receiving hospice care is near the end of life and at high risk of dying within six months. Patients enrolled in hospice no longer benefit from, or have chosen to forgo, further cancer treatment.
What are the benefits of palliative care?
The National Cancer Institute reports that palliative care is beneficial to the health and well-being of patients with cancer and their families. Multiple clinical trials have shown that patients with serious illnesses who received palliative care had equal or better symptom control than patients who did not, and less anxiety and depression.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology found that offering palliative care helps cancer patients live better and longer lives.
How to access palliative care
Referral for a palliative care consultation can be made by an oncologist, primary care doctor, other medical professional, or a patient can reach out on their own for an evaluation. Palliative care is covered by Medicare and Medicaid, as well as most other insurance providers.
Patients may receive palliative care in the hospital, in an outpatient setting, a long-term care facility, or at home under the direction of a licensed healthcare provider.
The entire team at Penn Medicine Princeton Cancer Center works closely with patients and their loved ones to make sure the patient gets the care and support they need, including palliative care when needed, to manage their cancer, and to live as well as possible.
For more information about Princeton Cancer Center, or to find a physician affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 888-742-7496, or visit www.princetonhcs.org/directory.
To schedule a palliative care consultation, call 609-853-6793.
Ramy Sedhom, MD, is a board certified oncologist and palliative care physician on the Medical Staff of Penn Medicine Princeton Health.