When Nancy Stordahl’s mother was hospitalized in 2008 for her rapidly progressing metastatic breast cancer, a palliative care team stopped by the room one day to talk about her mother’s needs. But Stordahl wasn’t interested in what they had to say. In fact, they were the last people she wanted to see.
“My mind immediately jumped to hospice care — this must be the end,” the writer and breast cancer survivor from Menomonie, Wisconsin, wrote in a 2014 blog post. “My next leap was, ‘Get out!’ What I actually did say to them I have no idea. But I do remember sitting there stewing.”
It’s a common misconception, according to experts at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Palliative care may even be the most misunderstood phrase in cancer care. Half of patients don’t know what it is; the other half think it means they’re dying and anyone who mentions it has given up on them.
Sometimes referred to as comfort or supportive care, palliative care can definitely ease suffering in late-stage cancer patients entering hospice or approaching end of life. But it’s also a powerful tool for patients dealing with pain or treatment side effects anywhere along the cancer continuum, from early stagers grappling with chemo-induced nausea to metastatic patients learning to live with headaches, neuropathy and constant bone pain from their ongoing therapy.
And research shows palliative care can do much more: it can cut back on emergency room visits; curb anxiety and depression; improve the ability to cope with disease for both patients and caregivers, and even help those who are in treatment to live longer.