Palliative Care 101 - Improving Quality of Life While in Treatment

LUNGevity Foundation

Palliative care, or supportive care, often misunderstood as only end-of-life care, improves patients' quality of life while undergoing treatment. The goal of palliative care is to alleviate the symptoms and side effects caused by lung cancer or its treatment. It also can help you and your family deal with both the emotional aspects of your illness and any practical issues. Although hospice care is a type of palliative care, not all palliative care is reserved for end-of-life. If you suffer from pain, stress, or other symptoms due to a serious disease like lung cancer, palliative care could help. 

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends that cancer patients (along with their families and caregivers) should be made aware that palliative care is part of the patient's comprehensive cancer care. Palliative care can reduce symptoms and side effects. It also lowers rates of depression and improves a patient's understanding of their prognosis and treatment plan. Dr. Laura Petrillo, a palliative care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, weighed in on the value of palliative care. "Palliative care focuses on helping people manage the symptoms and the stress of serious, advanced diseases. We work with the oncology team as an extra layer of support. Our ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life for the patient and their family."  

Palliative care can include: 

  • Pain and side effect management medications 
  • Physical therapy 
  • Nutrition counseling 
  • Complementary therapies like acupuncture and meditation 
  • Counseling and other resources for mental health 
  • Support completing complex medical forms  
  • Explanations of test results and treatment plans 
  • Resources for navigating practical issues relating to insurance, workplace challenges, and financial hardship 

The doctor managing your disease will make the referral to a palliative care specialist. If your doctor does not bring it up, you can request a referral. A hospital social worker can also help you and your family select a palliative care provider. Many private insurance plans, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, cover at least some palliative care services. You should discuss what services are covered with your insurer in advance. Patients without health insurance should check with a social worker or their hospital's financial counselor.  

Palliative care can be provided in a doctor's office, hospital, cancer center, long-term care facility, or at home. Many large hospitals and cancer centers have palliative care teams. Doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, and chaplains often work together to provide palliative care alongside the oncologist. If your treatment center does not offer palliative care, your doctor can refer you to a palliative care specialist outside the facility. Note that a palliative care doctor never replaces any other doctors on your healthcare team.  

If interested in palliative care, please consider asking your doctor about a referral and what options may be available. Once paired with a palliative care specialist, a helpful guide for asking important questions can be found here. LUNGevity's survivorship staff is also available to provide one-on-one support, information, and resources. Connect with LUNGevity’s survivorship team by email at [email protected].  

Related Reading:  

Palliative Care: An Important Tool for Advanced-Stage Lung Cancer Patients 
A Lung Cancer Patient’s Experience with Palliative Care 

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