10 Ways Palliative Care Can Help People With Lung Cancer

by Linda Rodgers Health Writer

Here’s what every palliative care provider wishes you knew: Palliative care is not synonymous with hospice, or end-of-life care. The whole purpose of this medical specialty is to help patients with serious illnesses like lung cancer manage their symptoms and pain. And you can see a palliative care physician as soon as you’re diagnosed , no matter what your stage. “We know that when patients feel better, they tend to do better,” says Kate Lally, M.D., a senior physician at the adult palliative care program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA. Here are 10 ways palliative care can help you now.

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Palliative Care Can Help You Live Longer

Last fall, a study of 23,000 veterans with lung cancer found that those who received palliative care tended to survive longer. Timing was important though: The patients who fared best started care early on in their treatment. That’s not typically when it’s offered (which is why many people confuse it with hospice). The key is to think of palliative care as part of your overall treatment strategy, and if it’s not offered up, be sure to ask.

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It Also Helps You Live Better

It’s tough to participate in activities when chemo and cancer are causing pain and debilitating side effects. “I often ask patients what they're not able to do that they wish they could do,” says Dr. Lally. “I'll hear things like, ‘I used to go to church on Sundays, but I can't sit in the pews any longer because of my pain. Or I used to babysit my grandkids, but now the pain is so bad I can't be around them.’” The goal is to manage these symptoms with medications and other means so people can still enjoy the things they love to do.

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You’ll Have a Whole Team Looking After You…

Many cancer centers have a large palliative care staff that includes doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, chaplains, and pharmacists. Together with your palliative care doctor (who works with your oncologist), you’ll come up with a plan to manage whatever ails you from every angle, explains Ishwaria M. Subbiah, M.D., an assistant professor at the department of palliative, rehabilitation & integrative medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

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…So Your Symptoms Are Treated Holistically

Say you’re constantly short of breath, a common side effect of lung cancer. “We want to understand what is the exact underlying cause of it,” says Dr. Subbiah. Depending on the cause, treatment could include a short course of steroids or a procedure to drain fluid from the lungs or supplemental oxygen. Or it could involve anti-anxiety meds and cognitive-behavior therapy. “It may also involve integrative measures, oncology massage, acupuncture, yoga, and meditation. You can see how a multidisciplinary plan takes effect when someone comes in saying, ‘I have trouble breathing,’” she explains.

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Palliative Care Can Help You Stick to Your Treatment Plan

It’s not only the cancer making you feel bad—it’s the chemo and other medications that contribute to your constant nausea, fatigue, or diarrhea. “I hear patients say, ‘I feel so badly that I don't want to continue treatments because I feel so poorly.’ And so if we can manage that, if we can say, ‘Okay, here is a really aggressive nausea regimen to get it under control,’ it can make people want to continue treatments that might be helpful to them a little bit longer,” says Dr. Lally.

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You’ll Get Help Managing Your Fears

“When people are faced with a really serious illness, they worry about what the future holds for them. They worry about their loss of role or they have spiritual distress: ‘How could this happen to me? How could God do this to me?’” Dr. Lally explains. That’s why palliative care involves collaboration with social workers, chaplains, or even your priest or rabbi. “Our entire focus is on how you are feeling, and what we can do to get you feeling better,” says Dr. Lally. And a big part of that is connecting you the people you feel most comfortable with.

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You’ll Be Empowered to Say No

Just because a lung cancer treatment is offered to you, you don’t necessarily need to take it. Or you may simply want a break in order to go on vacation, as one of Dr. Lally’s patients wished to do. “That’s the kind of guidance we provide. Sometimes patients also feel more comfortable talking to us about fears around treatment or questions about prognosis. We can often help give them language to talk with their oncologist about those types of things,” Dr. Lally explains.

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You’ll Learn How to Pace Yourself

Physical therapists on your palliative care team can help you regain strength—and teach you critical energy-conserving strategies. “If you have, for example, 100 units of energy in your body in a given day, how do you want to spend that? You probably would much rather spend those 100 units of energy with your children and grandchildren rather than mowing the lawn. But you have to actually talk about it in order to recognize and make a plan around it,” Dr. Subbiah explains.

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Palliative Care is Whole-Family Care

Your loved ones are facing your illness right alongside you—and can often feel overwhelmed by all they have to do or the grief of seeing you so ill, says Dr. Lally. Palliative care nurses can connect you and your family with community resources that offer home health aides or even transportation. “We can also set family members up with therapists or social workers so they have an outlet to talk about stressors. We help with practical supports as well as emotional to help families through all of this,” she explains.

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You Can Find Palliative Care in Many Places

Some hospitals may have only one or two palliative care clinicians on staff, says Dr. Subbiah. If you’re not able to get in as soon as you’d like, she suggests working with your oncologist to connect with other specialists who may be able offer similar care. “So if it's cancer pain and distress, you can see a pain management team. These practices also have mental health professionals as part of their staff, because it's widely recognized that emotional distress does affect pain,” she explains. For more resources, visit getpalliativecare.org, where you can also search their provider directory.

Palliative Care and Vets: JAMA Oncology. (2019). “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.” jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaoncology/article-abstract/2751526

Linda Rodgers
Meet Our Writer
Linda Rodgers

Linda Rodgers is a former magazine and digital editor turned writer, focusing on health and wellness. She's written for Reader’s Digest, Working Mother, Bottom Line Health, and various other publications. When she's not writing about health, she writes about pets, education, and parenting.