Iris Mini: How Can Palliative Care Help You?

Palliative care consists of a specialized medical care team of doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, volunteers, and others who work alongside a patient's medical team to address ongoing symptoms.

The goal of palliative care is to help improve your quality of life. You can receive palliative care with or without cancer treatment. Palliative care can begin at any point in the treatment process and is often recommended to start soon after diagnosis to help prevent major symptom issues or side effects. Patients are most often referred to palliative care when they have a serious or life-threatening illness, such as cancer. The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends that all patients with advanced cancer receive palliative care, which is covered by most insurance plans.

If you and your oncologists or another provider have discussed palliative care and you are considering it, exploring these benefits can help guide your decision.

Symptom Management

While many oncology specialists provide active symptom management and aspects of palliative care within their practice, working with a palliative care team is an additional layer of support. A primary goal of palliative care is to help you identify your symptoms and take a proactive approach to managing side effects before they get out of control.

Palliative doctors and nurses are experts in symptom and pain management. The palliative care team takes additional time with you and your family to understand how cancer and your symptoms are affecting your life. They explore with you how symptom management can better support your ability to engage in activities that are important to you.

Cohesion of Care

The priority of palliative care is to work with your medical team(s) and integrate the new recommendations into your established cancer care plan. If you have more than one serious illness, or are seeing multiple specialists, you can feel overwhelmed navigating multiple medical offices and understanding the link between different diseases. The palliative care team examines your diagnosis, treatments, and medication to understand how each component impacts your quality of life and make appropriate recommendations.

Team Approach

Palliative care is a medical service offered by a team of interdisciplinary members that can include doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and chaplains. In addition to addressing physical concerns, the palliative care team supports you and your concerns related to psychological, social, spiritual, and caregiving aspects of your life. Palliative care can offer support to you if you are coping with change and loss related to physical conditions. The team can help support your existential and spiritual issues. Additionally, palliative care works with caregivers to assess their coping and needs and can assist with referrals for support.

Understanding Your Care Goals

An additional important role of palliative care team is helping you to understand and articulate the things that are most important to you as you go through cancer treatment. This is most often referred to as advance care planning, a term that encompasses both helping you better communicate with loved ones and your medical team and completing documents such as advance directives and estate planning.

Working with a palliative care team during or after a change in your treatment plan offers you an opportunity to reevaluate your treatment goals with the support and guidance of medical professionals who understand your medical needs. Working to identify your values and how to translate these into care decisions can help when you have important conversations with loved ones or your medical team.

Questions to Consider

If you answer yes to any of these questions, it may be time to consider palliative care:

  • Have you been diagnosed with advanced cancer (Stage 3 or Stage 4)?

  • Have your treatment or symptoms negatively impacted your ability to do the things that are important to you?

  • Do you have questions to better understand your health situation?

  • Are you looking for clarification about your treatment plan or its goals?

  • Are you interested in getting support to help identify your values and translate them into care decisions?

  • Are you struggling to separate what is most important to you vs. what is most important to your family?

  • Are you looking for support coping with change and loss related to your physical condition?

As you consider your decision, it’s important to know that there are different types of palliative care programs. If you are hospitalized, a palliative care team may approach you during your stay to offer their services. Your oncology provider may discuss the palliative care team at your cancer center, or your hospital or primary care system may have a palliative program that offers home care.

When setting up an appointment, ask what services are provided and how often a patient meets with the palliative care team. Having an intake meeting with the palliative care team can be a helpful starting point when deciding if the service is right for you.