News from Illinois CancerCare

Understanding Palliative Care

Palliative care is often misunderstood and confused with hospice care. Both offer services designed to increase comfort while also reducing the pain, suffering and emotional stress that critically ill patients experience.

After describing several key differences between palliative and hospice care, this article will focus on palliative care, with a goal of providing a broader understanding of how this type of support can benefit patients and their families during this very difficult time in their lives.

  • Stage of Disease: Individuals in hospice are expected to live for six months or less, while palliative care can be provided to patients of any age and at any stage of
  • the disease, starting with diagnosis, throughout treatment, during follow-up and at the end of life.
  • Curative Treatment: Palliative care patients receive treatment for their serious or life-threatening illness, but those in hospice no longer receive treatment for their terminal disease. Comfort care is offered to both.
  • Location of Care: Palliative care is usually delivered in a clinic (such as Illinois CancerCare) or hospital setting, while hospice services can be provided wherever the patient calls home.

The overall goal of palliative care is to improve the quality of life for a patient by addressing symptoms and side effects of treatment for serious illnesses including cancer, lung disease and HIV/AIDS. In addition to treating physical problems, it also addresses emotional, social, spiritual and practical needs that can arise when dealing with a serious medical condition. This type of care also reduces stress on the family and friends of the patient by providing respite opportunities.

Palliative care is provided by specially-trained medical professionals and encompasses a range of concerns that stem from the disease itself to those that occur as the result of treatment. At Illinois CancerCare (ILCC), we have a team that includes physicians, advanced practice nurses (APNs) and pharmacists. We work together with your other doctors and healthcare providers to deliver an extra layer of support that can be provided alongside curative treatment.

In addition to the services we provide directly at ILCC, we can also provide you with referrals to trusted community partners including dieticians, social workers, financial counselors, occupational therapists and others. Some common challenges that palliative care addresses include:

  • Pain or discomfort
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Transportation needs
  • Caretaker fatigue
  • Other issues that interfere with your treatment

Over the years, we’ve found that our patients have numerous common questions related to palliative care. Here are a few that we’re often asked.

Will I become addicted to the pain medicine? Most patients can safely take the dosages prescribed by their physician, but if you have a history of addiction, please let us and your other care providers know. Keeping people comfortable often requires increased doses of pain medication. This is a result of tolerance to medication as the body adjusts and doesn’t necessarily indicate addiction.

No two patients experience pain in the same way. For some it’s mild or nonexistent, while others feel pain more intensely. Your pain levels may also vary throughout your treatment. It’s important to always be honest with your doctor or nurse about how much pain you’re in, so we can help alleviate or diminish it.

Does palliative care hasten death? This is a fairly common assumption, but palliative care doesn’t accelerate (or attempt to stall) the dying process. It provides comfort and the best quality of life from the time you’re diagnosed with an advanced illness until end of life. People also ask if morphine hastens death. Appropriate doses help patients remain comfortable, but morphine doesn’t speed up the dying process.

Will my loved one or I die of starvation? While it may seem that way, the truth is that death is the result of the terminal disease. Patients who are near the end of a life-threatening illness often lose their appetite or experience diminished thirst, but they don’t die of starvation.

Should we let our kids visit their relative who is in palliative care? Every situation is different and you know your family members better than anyone. However, in general, it’s important to let children talk about death so they can develop healthy attitudes that will benefit them as adults. Like grown-ups, children also need time to say goodbye to people who are important to them.

Although small children (in their innocent and honest way) may ask a lot of questions, teenagers can sometimes retreat into themselves or seek answers online. It’s important to provide an environment that encourages teens to talk without forcing conversations. Maintaining an open dialogue is important for family members of all ages.

Should I keep my family member at home instead of providing them with palliative care? This is a question many people wrestle with. Family members strive to give their loved ones personal care and attention in their own home where they feel safe. But sometimes, in spite of your best intentions, the needs of the patient exceed what can be delivered at home.

Rest assured that those who provide palliative care are sensitive to these concerns and are trained to support patients and their families with dignity and compassion. In addition, you can do little things to make the palliative care environment feel more like home by bringing in items like a comfy pillow, special blanket and photos.

Palliative care offers powerful support to patients and their families during a time they need it most. The ILCC palliative care team is here for you. And we always will be.