Understanding Palliative Care for Cancer Patients

Palliative care is a type of medicine that is often misunderstood. Because hospice care is a well-known subset of palliative care, many people think that the two are one in the same, and therefore should seek palliative care only if their cancer is terminal. Despite this stigma, patients at all stages of cancer treatment can benefit from palliative care.

What is palliative care, and how can it help cancer patients?

Palliative care is a comprehensive, interdisciplinary team approach to caring for people with serious illnesses, like cancer. Palliative care doctors, nurses, and other clinicians aim to improve their patients’ quality of life and lessen the burden of their cancer symptoms, providing an extra layer of support and collaborating closely with their primary oncology team. Patients with cancer or other serious illnesses can benefit from palliative care from time of diagnosis and throughout their disease trajectory, even while receiving treatments with curative intent.

We can think of palliative care as an umbrella term under which hospice care exists. Hospice care also takes a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach to improving patient’s quality of life, specifically when at the end of their lives.

People with all types of cancer may benefit from palliative care, depending on their disease course and symptom burden. For cancer patients, palliative care helps to provide relief from the symptoms that cancer or its treatment may present. Examples include treating symptoms like chemotherapy-related nausea, cancer related pain, and alleviating various forms of psychosocial or emotional distress—not only for patients, but for their families as well.

Our goal is really to meet the patient where they are at—understanding who they are, what’s important to them, and helping them align their treatment plans with their goals and needs.

What types of doctors or clinicians are involved in palliative care?  

At Dana-Farber, our palliative care team includes physicians board-certified in Hospice and Palliative Medicine, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, clinical social workers, pharmacists, and chaplains. In both the Dana-Farber clinic and hospital settings, our team closely collaborates with a patient’s primary oncology team to provide expert care for patients at any stage in their cancer treatment. A patient’s palliative care needs may change over time, depending on factors like the cancer’s stage or the type of treatment the patient receives. 

Are there other benefits that can be attributed to palliative care?

Palliative care clinicians help to ensure patients and their families have good understanding of their illness and that they are presented information in ways that make sense to them. They also ensure the care the patient receives is consistent with their goals and values. With this in mind, patients who receive palliative care may feel more involved in their cancer treatment and care.

In addition, growing evidence shows that with regard to improved quality of life, palliative care can decrease depression and anxiety in cancer patients as they cope with their diagnosis and disease. In some cases, palliative care may improve outcomes, such as living longer—and some studies have even shown that palliative care has the potential to improve health care value by lowering overall healthcare costs.

Are there any developments in palliative care research?

Since palliative care is a relatively newer field, there is certainly a need for continued research to inform how we can better care for patients. With that said, there have been some encouraging developments in recent years. In a recent study, early palliative care along with standard oncology care was shown to improve quality of life for those with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer patients or (non-colorectal) gastrointestinal cancer patients. There was also a recent study showing patients admitted for bone marrow transplant receiving palliative care had a lesser decrease in quality of life compared to those receiving standard transplant care alone.

Learn more about palliative care at Dana-Farber.