Why people are asking for palliative care

“My patient, Janis, is dying. She does not mind me telling you this. In fact, she wants you to know. She also wants you to know what you can do to help yourself when your turn comes.”

So begins an article by primary care doctor and writer Suzanne Koven, who wrote about palliative care at her patient Janis’ request.

Many people haven’t heard of palliative care as a specialty of medicine. It doesn’t deal with any particular organ system or group of illnesses. Instead, it’s an approach to improving quality of life for patients with serious illnesses and their families.

Palliative care is specialized care for people with serious illnesses (like cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and many more), with the goal of relieving pain, symptoms, and stress. A team of specially trained doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains work together as an extra layer of support on top of your existing doctors. It’s appropriate for any age, diagnosis, or stage of illness, and can happen alongside curative treatments like chemotherapy.

Over the past several years, palliative care has grown into a sizable specialty that’s commonly found in hospitals. You can find out which hospitals offer it in your state here.

In 2010, research showed that early palliative care for lung cancer patients actually increased how long people lived by almost 3 months, despite receiving less aggressive care.

That’s right. Patients who received palliative care lived longer, and with less depression and better quality of life.

Powerful testimony for why this is the case comes from patients like Janis.

In describing Janis’ experience with palliative care, Koven uses words like “coaching,” “strategic,” and imparting “skills.” These aren’t what we normally associate with end-of-life care, but they convey an important aspect of palliative care.

The process of planning this doesn’t come naturally to any one. Palliative care clinicians see how people’s stories unfold on a daily basis, and they are experts in alleviating symptoms and having difficult discussions. By getting to know you personally, they can help with processing medical information and the stresses of a serious illness. They’re experienced coaches who can foreshadow what lies ahead and equip you with the skills to make it better.

While in hospice, Janis talked to Koven about how palliative care gave her courage:

If she’d never met [her palliative care doctor] Vicki, Janis says, “I think I’d be in the fetal position, in this bed. But I’m still up, I’m walking around, I’m coherent. There’s just something that’s driving me. Part of it is who I am, but another part of it is the skills that Vicki has provided me with.”

Would you want this kind of guidance for yourself and your loved ones?

Learn more about palliative care at getpalliativecare.org, where you can hear and read more stories of patients like Janis.  

If you’re curious about the study on early palliative care study, check out “Early Palliative Care for Patients with Metastatic Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer.” New England Journal of Medicine. August 2010.

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