Blog Post | August 17, 2018

Palliative Care & Cancer Pain Awareness Month

People who are diagnosed with cancer, as well as their loved ones, often feel overwhelmed by thoughts of prognosis, treatments, and potential complications. They wonder how cancer will alter quality of life, and fear potential pain and other symptoms that may arise. Dealing with all of these concerns requires a team effort and support from committed and experienced professionals.

This is where palliative care can make an enormous difference: providing symptom management for pain, difficulty breathing, incontinence and digestion issues, as well as addressing psychological, social and spiritual needs. The focus of care is on the patient and family—not just the disease.

The palliative care team works with the patient’s doctor to develop treatment plans, manage pain and other symptoms, gives emotional support and helps deal with end-of-life issues.

Cancer Pain

One important part of palliative care is pain control, with cancer-related pain posing a major problem for many cancer patients. More than half of all cancer patients have significant pain. Fear of having pain is very common in people with cancer. Pain may improve with treatment, healing and time. If pain persists, it’s important to realize that most of the time it can be relieved.

Pain is easier to treat when first experienced and may get worse, requiring more treatment to relieve it as it progresses. Also, pain can be an early warning sign of the side effects of the cancer or the cancer treatment. To avoid, the effect of untreated paint — increased fatigue, depression, anger, anxiety and stress – it’s important to discuss the first sign of pain with the physician or palliative care team.

Palliative Care Offers More Options

Palliative care gives patients more options and empowers them to take part in decisions about their care. It may be provided at any point along the cancer care continuum, from diagnosis to the end of life. When a person receives palliative care, he or she may continue to receive cancer treatment.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment may be very different from person to person. Palliative care can address a broad range of issues, integrating an individual’s specific needs into care. A palliative care specialist will take the following issues into account for each patient:

  • Physical – Common physical symptoms include pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and insomnia.
  • Emotional and coping – Palliative care specialists can provide resources to help patients and families deal with the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. Depression, anxiety, and fear are only a few of the concerns that can be addressed through palliative care.
  • Spiritual – With a cancer diagnosis, patients and families often look more deeply for meaning in their lives. Some find the disease brings them closer to their faith or spiritual beliefs, whereas others struggle to understand why cancer happened to them. An expert in palliative care can help people explore their beliefs and values so that they can find a sense of peace or reach a point of acceptance that is appropriate for their situation.
  • Caregiver needs – Family members are an important part of cancer care. Like the patient, they have changing needs. It’s common for family members to become overwhelmed by the extra responsibilities placed upon them. Many find it hard to care for a sick relative while trying to handle other obligations, such as work, household duties, and caring for other family members. Uncertainty about how to help their loved one with medical situations, inadequate social support, and emotions such as worry and fear can also add to caregiver stress. These challenges can compromise caregivers’ own health. Palliative care specialists can help families and friends cope and give them the support they need.
  • Practical needs – Palliative care specialists can also assist with financial and legal worries, insurance questions, and employment concerns. Discussing the goals of care is also an important component of palliative care. This includes talking about advance directives and facilitating communication among family member, caregivers, and members of the oncology care team.

What is the Difference Between Palliative Care and Hospice?

Whereas palliative can begin at any point along the cancer care continuum, hospice care begins when curative treatment is no longer the goal of care and the sole focus is quality of life. More information is available in the National Cancer Institute (NCI) fact sheet Hospice Care.

Palliative care can help patients and their loved ones make the transition from treatment meant to cure or control the disease to hospice care by:

  • Preparing them for physical changes that may occur near the end of life
  • Helping them cope with the different thoughts and emotional issues that arise
  • Providing support for family

To understand more about the difference between palliative care and hospice, read here.

The Importance of Communications

Palliative care specialists are also experts at helping patients communicate their feelings and personal wishes. Specially trained nurses and clinical social workers are highly skilled in conducting these conversations and can be very important in helping everyone involved understand the treatment options. They can also be an important ally in helping to navigate the health care system and anticipating future issues that may arise.

Community-based clinicians are there for patients and family to talk to about symptoms and quality of life issues. They provide practical and emotional support for everyone involved. When families and caregivers feel supported by community-based palliative care teams, they are better able to offer support to their loved ones.


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