Cancer is, in the words of palliative care expert Dana Guyer, MD, “a life- and world-altering diagnosis.” But you don’t have to go it alone.
While your other specialists focus on treating the disease, a palliative care team specializes in supporting you — your physical symptoms, emotional wellbeing, and overall quality of life.
“That’s the focus of teams like the Supportive Care team that Dr. Guyer directs at Lifespan Cancer Institute, a HopeHealth partner organization.”
“We try to make the experience of having cancer less challenging for patients and their families,” Dr. Guyer says.
Managing symptoms from cancer and its treatment
Palliative care helps people with many kinds of serious illness live as long and as well as possible.
But what exactly does that mean for cancer?
For one, it almost always includes controlling symptoms — both from the cancer itself, and from the side effects of treatments like chemotherapy. The list can be long.
“It may be pain or nausea. It may be anxiety. Sometimes people have trouble sleeping. I could go on and on,” says Dr. Guyer.
Palliative care specializes in preventing, or at least minimizing, all of this. That can include medication along with patient-centered therapies like meditation and breathing exercises, acupuncture, music therapy, massage therapy and pet therapy. Using a combination of techniques, Dr. Guyer’s team helps patients feel their best while they cope with their illness.
“We work with patients’ oncologists, hematologists and advanced practice providers to manage symptoms in whatever way we need to,” says Dr. Guyer. “It’s a huge team effort.”
With palliative care, help facing cancer’s unknowns
“I think one of the absolute hardest things in a cancer diagnosis is the uncertainty,” says Dr. Guyer. A palliative care team eases that uncertainty by anticipating the information and support that patients may need along their journey.
For example, Dr. Guyer and her team help patients adjust to the shock of their diagnosis, and eventually shift into a mindset of “Where do we go from here?” They share the ins and outs of treatment options, both for today and in the future. If the next step of the disease or treatment may lead to side effects, they prepare them as much as possible.
“If you know, ‘My doctor told me that in the next week, I may be so tired I can’t get out of bed,’ then when it happens, you don’t think something has gone terribly wrong,” says Dr. Guyer. “Knowing what to expect demystifies the process and makes it less scary.”
A partner for medical decision-making
Depending on the type and stage of cancer, a patient may be choosing between any number of treatment options. That includes Jim*, a patient in his 70s with metastatic colon cancer. Does he want to try the next line of chemotherapy and the side effects that come with it? Does he want a less aggressive treatment? What interventions best support his goals for his illness, and for his quality of life?
Dr. Guyer’s palliative care team is helping Jim not only understand each option, but weigh which is right for him.
“At every crossroads of cancer care, there are decision points,” says Dr. Guyer. “We help patients and families work through those decisions.” And whichever path is chosen, they make sure all of a patient’s doctors and care teams are on the same path too.
Someone who knows what you’re going through
“Cancer can be extraordinarily isolating, even for people who are surrounded by friends and family,” says Dr. Guyer.
Palliative care connects patients with people who understand their experience. They’ve walked through many different cancer diagnoses with many different people. The team includes chaplains and social workers who specialize in emotional, spiritual and even logistical support.
For Renee*, a patient in her 50s with pancreatic cancer, this element of palliative care has been crucial. In addition to managing her pain, Dr. Guyer’s team helps her work through the emotional toll of the disease — like how it feels to be someone who strongly identifies with her career, but is not able to work right now. Sharing these challenges in a safe, understanding space brings its own comfort.
“Connection is crucial — the more people available to support and recognize the emotional experience that patients are going through with cancer, the easier the experience will be,” says Dr. Guyer.
What is the role of palliative care in cancer care?
Palliative care is an extra layer of care, provided alongside other treatment.
But for many patients, this “extra” is essential.
“We know from research that when patients have cancer, having a palliative care provider and their care team is really important,” says Dr. Guyer. From physical symptoms to emotional well-being, it’s been shown to transform patients’ quality of life.
In other words: After a world-altering diagnosis, palliative care is often world-altering care.