Adding Quality of Life with Palliative Care


Most breast cancer patients and their families feel strongly that treating the pain, symptoms and emotional distress associated with cancer management is as important as treating the disease itself.

Many patients experience debilitating symptoms, such as fatigue, pain and nausea, along with the stress of dealing with a serious illness, which has an impact on work and family.

Adding palliative care to breast cancer treatment can lessen symptoms and support the best possible quality of life for the patient, family and caregivers.

What is palliative care?

If you are confused by palliative care, you are not alone. Since it is a relatively new medical specialty, many people don’t know what it is or how it can help. Palliative care focuses on the relief of pain and other symptoms to improve quality of life.

Although often mistakenly associated with hospice care, palliative care can be prescribed at any stage of illness and can be just as important in breast cancer treatment as chemotherapy or surgery. “Patients with cancer, including breast cancer, do better when they feel better,” said Julie Bushey, RN, MSN, OCN, palliative care manager with Merrimack Valley Hospice.

“As a former oncology nurse for over 25 years, I understand the impact that symptoms of a cancer diagnosis and treatment may have,” she said. “With palliative care, patients typically experience improved relief from both physical and emotional symptoms, which translate to better quality of life, greater satisfaction with care, fewer emergency room visits, and reduced burden on the family and other caregivers.”

The palliative care team of Merrimack Valley Hospice includes physicians, nurse practitioners and social workers with extensive experience in pain and symptom management, as well as the physical, emotional and spiritual issues that often accompany a serious illness.

They offer patient-centered, problem-focused consultation and treatment recommendations in the comfort and privacy of the patient’s home, which helps to provide insight into the needs of the entire family unit. They work closely with the patient’s oncologist and primary care physician to manage what can be very difficult treatment side effects, such as fatigue, pain, nausea, loss of appetite and weight loss. They can assist the patient and family with challenging medical decisions and help to coordinate care with other medical professionals. The palliative social worker can also assist the patient and family by providing a listening presence and teaching coping skills and techniques to help reduce stress and anxiety that may accompany the physical symptoms.

A typical palliative care visit could include:

  • A comprehensive patient assessment by a nurse practitioner,
  • Recommendations to manage complex pain and other symptoms,
  • Identification of the patient’s goals of care and recommendations to achieve those goals,
  • Referral to other community organizations, such as the American Cancer Society or to local breast cancer support groups,
  • Emotional support, education and counseling for the patient and family.

“A breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, not only for the patient but the entire family,” Bushey said. “Our clinical team can help to alleviate physical symptoms while also counseling women on coping strategies to deal with the many emotional issues and day-to-day stress that can impact quality of life.” The goal of palliative care is to help reduce symptoms and to provide support for patients and their families.

For more information on the palliative care program of Merrimack Valley Hospice, call 1-800-475-8335.

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