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Why you shouldn't put off palliative care

A healthcare worker visits a man and woman at home in bed.

Oct. 17, 2019—Doctors have long known that palliative care improves quality of life. Now a new study of lung cancer patients suggests it may also help people live longer.

What is it?

Rather than trying to cure a disease or change its course, palliative care focuses on helping people feel better—physically and emotionally—while living with a life-limiting illness. The goal is to ease pain and other uncomfortable symptoms, like shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, anxiety and depression. It can include a wide range of services and treatments, such as:

  • Medication.
  • Counseling.
  • Nutrition therapy.
  • Relaxation techniques.
  • Support from a social worker.
  • Support for caregivers.

It's often associated with hospice and other end-of-life care. But palliative care can—and should, researchers argued—be offered earlier, alongside treatments meant to cure a disease.

A closer look

The study looked at the medical records of over 23,000 patients with advanced lung cancer. About 57% of them received palliative care. It found that people who got palliative care soon after their diagnosis (between 31 and 365 days later) lived longer than those without it.

Those who waited more than a year to get palliative care, on the other hand, had no difference in survival.

Exactly why early palliative care might help seriously ill people live longer is still unclear. It may be that patients benefit from a more holistic approach to treatment. Or it could be that the emphasis on quality of life helps patients avoid overly aggressive care that may do more harm than good, researchers said. Past research suggests that improvements in mood and quality of life may also positively affect survival.

But whatever the explanation, these findings suggest that many patients could benefit from exploring their palliative care options earlier in their treatment.

The study appeared in JAMA Oncology.

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