Friday, August 9, 2013

What is palliative care?

August 08, 2013 12:00 am  •  
Most people have heard of the word “hospice” and associate the word with end of life care offered to terminally ill patients and their families. But what does “palliative care” mean?
Palliative care is different from hospice care. Although they share the same principles of comfort and support, palliative care begins at diagnosis and continues during treatment and beyond. Palliative care is now defined as specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. This type of care is focused on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness – whatever the diagnosis. The goal is to relieve suffering and improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.
Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists who work with the patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. This care is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and can be provided at the same time as life-sustaining treatment.
Many patients benefit from palliative care throughout their illness and at the end of their lives. Palliative care is provided for as long as the patient needs it.
The main goal of palliative care is to treat and manage physical and emotional symptoms including pain, shortness of breath, anxiety, fatigue, depression and trouble sleeping. In addition, palliative care can help patients and their loved ones understand their medical condition and determine treatment goals.
For cancer patients, the goal of palliative care is to prevent and treat, as early as possible, the symptoms and side effects of the disease and its treatment. It should begin at diagnosis and continue through treatment, follow-up care, and the end of life.
The most noticeable benefit of palliative care, also called supportive care, is the relief of physical symptoms such as pain, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea and vomiting, or shortness of breath. It also includes counseling and other services which can ease the emotional and spiritual distress of patients and their families.
There is also financial benefit as well, because when patients get their treatment concurrently with palliative care, and treatment options have been exhausted, these patients are less likely to receive unnecessary care in the emergency room or intensive care unit at the end of their life.
Recent studies have shown that palliative care, which has been shown to improve quality of life in patients with advanced cancer, may also help patients live longer. The theory is that the survival benefit from palliative care is likely the result of the patient feeling better emotionally and physically and therefore, they are able to continue their cancer treatment with less difficulty.
Another point which has been shown very clearly for other diseases is untreated physical and emotional distress can shorten lives. If a patient has untreated pain, fatigue, depression and nausea, there is a chance that he or she will die of complications from that continued stress.
In summary, palliative care is about improving quality of life, providing an extra layer of support and having a team focus to patient care. Palliative care is about helping both the family as well as the patient with serious illness. Palliative care must be differentiated from hospice or end of life care, as it can and should be provided earlier in the illness and care of the patient.
Palliative care will enhance quality of life and may also positively influence the course of illness; is applicable early in the course of illness, in conjunction with other therapies that are intended to prolong life, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and includes those investigations needed to better understand and manage distressing clinical complications.
Join Patty Odom in a special presentation at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 14 at the Mission Hope Cancer Center Conference Room on “Tools to Help Achieve the Best Quality of Life with Cancer”.
To make a reservation, or for additional information regarding palliative care at Marian Regional Medical Center, contact our cancer center at 219-4673.
Patty Odum is a board-certified palliative nurse practitioner with Marian Cancer Care, with extensive training and experience in adult medicine, oncology, palliative and hospice care. She can be reached at 346-3404. This weekly column, produced by Marian Cancer Care, invites you to submit your questions by email to


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