Palliative Care: Treating the Person, Not Just the Cancer

Patient Expert
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You or a loved one has cancer. And unfortunately, it’s turned into a long, hard struggle.

While no one breezes through cancer -- perhaps the most-feared illness in history -- some people have a more difficult road than others. And for those who need extra support, there’s help: palliative care.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care isn’t the nausea meds your oncologist prescribes during chemotherapy. It’s the counseling you receive and coping mechanisms you learn when the meds aren’t working, and you realize you’re going to have to trudge through months of feeling sick.

Palliative care isn’t a mastectomy. It’s getting help dealing with its scars, both visible and invisible.

While cancer treatment focuses on saving your life, palliative care focuses on improving the quality of that life.

Palliative care isn’t hospice

But doesn’t palliative care mean you’ve given up? Isn’t it for people who are dying?

Not at all. Palliative care offers long-term physical and emotional support for patients who are dealing with the symptoms and side effects of any serious disease, including cancer.

Hospice is for the terminally ill, defined by the National Cancer Institute as those expected to live no longer than six months. Hospice patients have made the decision to stop curative treatment.

Palliative care is appropriate for anyone with a serious illness, and can be utilized throughout the course of treatment: active, maintenance, and/or alternative/complementary.

What does palliative care look like in action?

Many hospitals have a palliative care team, which might include nurses and doctors specializing in palliative care as well as a social worker, psychologist or other trained counselor, a member of the hospital’s financial staff, a nutritionist, the hospital chaplain, and a pain specialist.

The team will help you coordinate all aspects of care beyond what your oncologist, radiologist, and surgeon deliver. Palliative care focuses on your overall experience, including that of family members. Your palliative care team ensures that your mental, emotional, and physical needs are all being met during treatment, and after treatment, if necessary.

How do you find a palliative care team?

Palliative care, while not universal, is widely available. According to a study printed in the Jan. 1, 2016 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Palliative Medicine, 90 percent of American hospitals with 300 beds or more offered a palliative care program as of 2013. However, smaller hospitals and/or those without an academic focus are less likely to offer palliative care.

Overall, about two-thirds of hospitals in the U.S. currently offer palliative care. To find out if your hospital offers a palliative care program, see getpalliativecare.org’s provider directory, which also identifies which programs are registered through the National Palliative Care Registry™.

Even if there’s an active palliative care team at your hospital, though, your oncologist may not think to recommend it. It may be up to you to seek out and access the team’s resources.

Does insurance cover palliative care?

According to the National Cancer Institute, most health insurance plans cover palliative care, while Medicaid and Medicare provide coverage in certain situations as well.

However, since palliative care services are wide-ranging and insurance plans differ, it’s always best to start your palliative care discussion with a member of the financial services team or a social worker, who can help you determine what part of your desired care is covered.

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Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.

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