Cancer can be complicated and scary. For some, when they hear the word “palliative,” they think dying. In reality, palliative care means something very different.
Cancer can be complicated and scary. Many wonder if their cancer diagnosis spells the end of their life and carefully avoid discussions about prognosis for fear of hearing the worst. It is understandable that when faced with cancer, most want to put up a hard fight. After all, there are a lot of options for treatment and even a cure that once did not exist. And that is why they sometimes are terrified when they hear the word “palliative.” For many, that word means there are no longer options for cure. We say “palliative” and they hear “dying.” In reality, the word “palliative” though, is different than the unique medical specialty that is palliative care. If a cancer treatment is said to be palliative in nature, this does indeed mean that the treatment is intended to improve symptoms, but will not cure the disease. However, if someone suggests you might be well served with palliative care, they may mean something very different.
Palliative care is a medical specialty intended to help alleviate the physical and emotional symptoms of serious illness. It does not mean that you won’t get better, or that you must stop cancer treatment. When offered palliative care, you might think, “Wait! I’m still going to fight this!” If you are pursuing aggressive cancer treatment, palliative care might be just the tool you need in your fight. It’s an interdisciplinary approach, which means physicians, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and other resources will work together with you to identify and meet your needs.
How does this help in your cancer fight? Palliative care focuses on optimal symptom management, so that nausea, pain, insomnia, shortness of breath, or difficulties with mobility do not get in the way of pursuing the treatments that you want and need. It means that you have a team supporting you as you go through what is likely one of the most trying times in your life. It doesn’t mean that you are expected to stop cancer treatment or that your hope for a cure is misplaced. It does mean that you are seriously ill, and probably have the physical and emotional burdens that arise as a result of that illness.
When you are very sick, it can be frightening to talk about things like living wills, medical leave of absence from work, childcare and financial burdens. But the reality is that advance planning can often make the cancer journey easier for you and your loved ones. Palliative care teams are adept at helping you hope for the best, while planning for the rest. They can provide emotional support through times of stressful decision making. If you aren’t going to get better, palliative care can help you plan for what a life of chronic illness will be like, and how you and your family will care for your long term needs. If you are going to get worse, and cancer treatments are no longer of benefit to you, palliative care can help you plan the best approach to the time that remains, managing symptoms optimally so you can do the things that matter. If you are one of the millions of people who are going to survive your cancer with a long, healthy life ahead, palliative care can assist you in managing your care while under treatment and provide the support you may need during recovery.
Whatever your cancer journey, if you are suffering from serious physical and emotional burdens because of cancer or another serious illness, you want to make use of every tool available to get you through this. Don’t shy away from palliative care because you are afraid or uninformed. It may be exactly what you need.
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