Coping with cancer: How early palliative care can help you and your family

March 10, 2022

Cancer Healthy Aging
Rear view of son and elderly father sitting together at home

When you or someone in your family is diagnosed with cancer, you may feel a sense of panic, worry and fear – as if your whole world is spinning out of control. And physically, if you’re the patient, you might not feel well.

To help you regain a sense of control and manage your physical and emotional wellbeing during cancer treatment, we recommend early palliative care.

“Palliative care is a special approach to cancer care. You can start palliative care at any point during the illness,” says Sarah West , M.D., a board-certified hospice and palliative medicine physician with Riverside. “But we suggest patients get a referral as early  as possible – shortly after diagnosis – to help them live as comfortably as possible. Palliative care helps family and friend caregivers too.”  

What is palliative care?

The goal of palliative care is to help you feel better. 

“While you are receiving cancer treatment, your palliative care team will work to manage the symptoms of your disease and minimize the side effects of your treatment,” says Dr. West. “You can receive palliative care at any stage of your illness – regardless of your prognosis.”  

The sooner you start, the better. Planning helps you feel a sense of control and helps you cope. 

Why is early palliative care so important? 

According to the American Cancer Society, studies have shown that palliative care has a positive impact on the wellbeing of patients, families and caregivers. Benefits include: 

  • Less time in intensive care units 
  • Fewer trips to the emergency room 
  • Fewer readmissions to the hospital 
  • Reduced medical bills
  • Less severe symptoms and side effects
  • Less pain, shortness of breath and nausea
  • Better mood and emotional health
  • Better survival rates 

“Studies show that palliative care eases the burden on family and caregivers.  Caregivers report a better quality of life and fewer depressive symptoms when palliative care is involved with their loved one's care,” says Dr. West.

How can early palliative care ease your physical symptoms?

Sometimes cancer treatments – such as chemotherapy, radiation and pain medication – produce side effects and make you feel lousy.  For example, you may experience loss of appetite, stomach discomfort, pain, shortness of breath and trouble sleeping.

To help relieve symptoms, your palliative care team may offer you:

  • Medicine
  • Nutritional guidance
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Other treatments

How can palliative care help you and family members cope – emotionally and spiritually?

With cancer, you may naturally feel stress, fatigue and depression. Your family may feel overwhelmed too. They want to take good care of you, yet they may struggle to manage their own job, childcare and other responsibilities at home. 

Early palliative care can help you and your family manage these issues before they grow out of control. Your palliative care team may suggest: 

  • Counseling to help you cope and manage emotions 
  • Family meetings to plan transportation to medical appointments, grocery shopping, cleaning etc. (A plan helps you feel a sense of control.) 
  • Support groups
  • Referrals to mental health providers

If you and your family struggle spiritually with your cancer diagnosis, your palliative care team can provide resources to help you process your feelings and move toward peace and acceptance. 

How can palliative care help you with practical and legal issues? 

When you or a family member has cancer, you may feel overwhelmed with medical decisions, money issues and insurance and legal questions. Your palliative care team can: 

  • Help you understand treatment choices and advance directives
  • Explain complex medical and insurance forms (or find someone who can)
  • Refer you to financial counseling 
  • Connect you to resources for transportation to and from medical treatments
  • Can help you transition to hospice care if treatment stops working or if cancer worsens

Who offers palliative care?

Some palliative care teams undergo special training and certification. You can receive palliative care from any provider, including doctors, nurses, physician assistants, psychologists, dietitians, social workers, massage therapists and chaplains.

If you would like more information about palliative care, Riverside is happy to help. Call us at 757-316-5725.  

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