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Early Palliative Care Linked to Increased Survival for Lung Cancer Patients

Palliative care may lead to longer survival times for people with lung cancer, a new study has found. The study looked at the medical records of more than 23,000 people being treated for advanced lung cancer between 2007 and 2013 in the Veterans Affairs health care system.1

More than 57 percent of the people in the study received some sort of palliative care. The study showed that people who received palliative care between 31 and 365 days after their diagnosis lived longer than those who did not receive palliative care.2

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is rooted in the idea of providing comfort for patients. It often uses a team approach, involving professionals such as nutritionists, mental health providers, physical and occupational therapists, music therapists, and spiritual advisors.3

Palliative care centers on helping patients cope with and get relief from the symptoms of illness and the side effects of treatment. It also addresses the social, emotional, practical, and spiritual challenges that illness can bring up for patients and their caregivers. This leads to improved quality of life for all involved.4

Palliative care is intended to be given at the same time as or as a complement to treatments meant to cure or treat disease. It can help patients from diagnosis, through treatment, and toward the end of life, for serious illnesses.4

Link between palliative care and increased survival

Palliative care is well known as a way to increase peoples’ quality of life. But research on its ability to increase lifespan has been mixed. That may be, in part, because palliative care is often given toward the end of a person’s life -- too late during a serious illness to make a difference.5

In this study, palliative care did increase peoples’ survival time, especially when it was given early. The risk of dying was about half for the people in the study who were given palliative care 31 to 365 days after diagnosis, compared to those who did not receive palliative care.1

“Palliative care shouldn’t be something that you withhold from people until the very end of their life,” says Donald Sullivan, lead author of the study. “Given the quality of life benefit and the potential to improve survival, I think it makes sense that people get this as early as possible.” Dr. Sullivan is an associate professor of medicine at the OHSU School of Medicine and a core investigator at the Center to Improve Veteran Involvement in Care at the Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System.5

Not to be confused with end-of-life care

One of the difficulties in making sure patients receive palliative care is that it is often confused with end-of-life care, or hospice care. This is true for both health care providers and patients.

Several studies have shown that because of this confusion, palliative care has a stigma attached to it, even among people who have benefited from it. Some doctors even suggest changing its name to reduce the stigma and confusion. That way more patients might access its benefits.6

“We need to get away from the myth that addressing palliative care needs with a patient is giving up hope,” Sullivan says.5

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