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Health Watch: A Guide to Understanding Palliative Cancer Care

Publication: Cleburne Times-Review 

By Sandhya Bejjanki, M.D., of Texas Oncology–Cleburne

When it comes to a cancer diagnosis, understanding the way forward means knowing your options. It may also mean preparing for your future. It may also mean preparing for what can feel like an uncertain future.

Cancer treatment options are varied, and each person’s unique needs and values will determine the best approach. At some point in the patient’s cancer journey, the care team may discuss palliative care.

Palliative care helps patients with symptom and stress relief during an illness, including cancer. Whereas many cancer treatment options work to cure the disease, palliative care works to prevent or treat side effects a patient experiences while undergoing treatment.

We hear patients and their families say that palliative care sounds scary because it is associated with sometimes hospice and end-of-life care. But did you know palliative care is often administered early on in the cancer journey to help relieve symptoms for patients undergoing treatment?

Open conversations about the realities of cancer treatment can be difficult, but asking questions can help alleviate fears. Knowing the options that are available and understanding how a patient would like to move forward are discussions best addressed during earlier stages of treatment. Palliative care plays an important role in these conversations.

What Is Palliative Care?

A common misconception is that palliative care is associated only with end-of-life care. The purpose of palliative care, however, is to improve the quality of life of patients during times of serious illness such as cancer. Palliative cancer care focuses largely on helping patients manage their symptoms.

This means patients may elect to receive palliative care at any time during their cancer journey for relief from such symptoms as pain, nausea, breathing difficulties, and improving overall comfort level. Symptom relief is a key focus of palliative care, but it also includes the emotional well-being of patients.

Is Palliative Care The Same As Hospice?

There are key differences between palliative care and hospice, and it’s important to understand them.

While palliative care may be recommended at any stage of cancer treatment, hospice is specific to end-of-life care. However, both palliative care and hospice focus on making patients as comfortable as possible while they are living with a life-threatening disease.

Both care programs also involve helping identify resources to provide emotional and spiritual care – in addition to addressing symptoms and quality of life concerns.

 How Will I Know If Palliative Care Is Right For Me?

Each patient has a team of oncologists, nurses, social workers, and others guiding them through their cancer journey. Asking questions and sharing your personal desires are two of the most important things you can do – particularly as it pertains to palliative care.

Evaluating your own values and wishes can be best addressed during the earlier stages of treatment. Advance care planning, which formalizes your values and desires regarding care during a serious illness, can involve difficult conversations but is very beneficial should you need to rely on it later. Palliative care plays an important role in these conversations and in helping you receive the type of care you want based on what’s most important to you.

There are situations in life for which no one can prepare us, including a cancer diagnosis. Understanding the benefits of palliative care can help patients and their families understand the options that are available to them.

Sandhya Bejjanki, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Cleburne, 191 Walls Drive in Cleburne.

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