Reviewed by: Elizabeth Kvale, MD, MSPH
Written by: Lauryn Feil
When you or someone you love is diagnosed with a life-altering illness, your first course of action is likely to find the best and most appropriate treatment possible. However, with a serious or chronic illness, such as cancer or multiple sclerosis, the illness as well as the treatment may cause side effects or discomfort that can affect your overall quality of life. Integrating a palliative care team from the point of diagnosis can help ease unwanted symptoms and maximize positive outcomes.
Palliative care focuses on optimizing the quality of life by anticipating, preventing, and managing suffering. This type of care is delivered by an interdisciplinary team that is comprised of physicians, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and other practitioners to address the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs of patients and their families. Teams are equipped to manage symptoms, such as nausea, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and more, that patients may experience after chemotherapy and other treatments.
One important distinction to make is that palliative care is not the same as hospice or end-of-life care. UT Health Austin palliative and supportive care specialist Elizabeth Kvale, MD, MSPH, in the LIVESTRONG Cancer Institute, says, “Palliative care is designed to help patients during and after their treatment. If your doctor refers you to a palliative care specialist, it does not mean they think you are imminently dying or have a short time to live. What it likely means is that they feel they may need help managing symptoms or guiding your care in a way that helps you as a person remain whole through that process.”
Palliative care teams work with you and your other health care providers to:
- Provide relief from pain and other distressing symptoms
- Integrate psychological and spiritual needs into your care
- Help you live as actively and as normally as possible
- Support your family members who may need guidance
- Enhance your overall quality of life
- Match your treatment options to your overall goals
- Communicate effectively to keep everyone on the same page
Many elements contribute to the quality of life for any given person. Your palliative care doctor works with you during your initial appointment to best understand your values and to determine what supportive care you may need to help you achieve your goals. “Each patient is different and comes to me with unique needs and strengths. We want to assess all of those variables and put together a plan of care to help them get through their cancer treatment and into survivorship with our support every step of the way,” says Dr. Kvale.
Palliative care is suggested for any patient, at any age, and is appropriate at any stage of an illness. Ideally, you’d receive a referral at the point of diagnosis, or you can ask your doctor about palliative care. “What we do know is that the sooner a patient receives palliative care, the better they tend to do in terms of quality of life and in terms of how long they live,” says Dr. Kvale. “We also help patients adjust to survivorship and manage their ‘new normal’ and any issues that may arise in their future.”
While primary care physicians and oncologists also practice palliative care, it often takes a palliative care specialist to help pull all of the factors that come with managing a chronic illness together to offer more personalized care for patients. Palliative care specialists receive fellowship training to equip them with the expertise in the management of difficult symptoms and in helping patients and their families manage difficult health and health care decisions. “Here in Austin, we are building a training program for palliative care doctors, and our goal is to increase access to palliative care so that every patient across Texas has access to compassionate, cutting-edge care,” says Dr. Kvale.
Patients have access to palliative care at the UT Health Austin LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes, from the point of diagnosis where, in addition to treatment management, they also receive coordinated care and whole-person services, including relaxation and stress reduction strategies, nutritional guidance, financial planning, emotional support, and more.