Navigating Palliative Care
What Is Palliative Care?
In my job as an oncology social worker I have the privilege of being part of a palliative care team, but find that many people do not really know what palliative care is. When diagnosed with cancer, many individuals have certain expectations: doctors appointments, tests, chemotherapy or radiation. What people often do not expect are the many side effects that accompany cancer treatment. Fatigue, nausea, anxiety, shortness of breath, and pain are often part of the cancer experience. Your oncologist has the training to treat your cancer, but what if there were people who could treat the side effects of cancer and treatment? Luckily there are: palliative care providers do just that.
To palliate means to make better. Palliative care is a specialized medical practice that provides treatment to alleviate the symptoms and side effects of serious illness, such as lung cancer. The goal of palliative care is to improve the quality of life for the patient and the family. Your palliative care provider will ask you how you want to live your day to day life and provide your care in order to best meet those goals.
Palliative care is often provided by a multidisciplinary team including doctors, nurses, social workers, navigators, and dietitians, among others. It may be provided in the hospital, in an outpatient setting, or in your home through a home nursing agency. Your team can address issues that are important to your quality of life, such as pain management, psychosocial issues, or sexual functioning. If palliative care services are not offered at the cancer center where you are seeking treatment, you can ask your doctor for a referral or seek one on your own (check out The Center to Advance Palliative Care or The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization for more referral sources). Your palliative care providers will work in conjunction with your oncologist; they will each be able to focus on their specialization in order to provide you with optimal care.
Support, Comfort, & Symptom Relief
Many of the issues that I encounter in the palliative care setting are emotional or family related issues. A cancer diagnosis can cause emotional distress for a patient as well as their family members. It can be difficult or painful for a family member to watch their loved one suffer in pain, with lack of appetite, or just not acting like themselves due to fatigue. Some of the most important family discussions can take place with your palliative care team. With an experienced team you can have an opportunity to not only address these issues pragmatically, but you can also find a safe space to discuss your fears and concerns.
Navigating cancer and its side effects can be a scary and challenging experience, even with a good support system. It is important to take advantage of all the resources at your fingertips to ease any of the burdens you are experiencing, if possible. Palliative care is an additional layer of support to utilize during this time to make your experience more manageable. With an experienced palliative care team you can continue to achieve your best quality of life possible no matter the challenges on your path.
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