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Palliative Care: Improving Quality of Life With Breast Cancer at Any Stage

Medically reviewed by Richard LoCicero, M.D.
Written by Anika Brahmbhatt
Posted on July 26, 2022

The term “palliative care” is often thought of as end-of-life care. However, it’s a common misconception that palliative care is only meant for people with late-stage, incurable cancers. In reality, people with breast cancer at any stage can benefit from palliative care. This type of supportive care can ease breast cancer symptoms, help you deal with treatment side effects, and provide emotional support. “I am in palliative care and feel taken care of for the first time,” shared one MyBCTeam member.

You don’t need to stop breast cancer treatment while receiving palliative care, so it makes sense to look into these services sooner rather than later. For early-stage breast cancer, palliative care can help you come to terms with your diagnosis and prevent complication risk factors like weight loss. In later-stage breast cancer, palliative care services can help you stay at home longer and transition to hospice care if needed.

Here are some details you should know about the different types of palliative care available throughout your breast cancer journey.

What Is Palliative Care?

Palliative care is specialized support for people living with serious health conditions. Hospice care begins when a person stops receiving medical treatment for a serious illness. Palliative care works with breast cancer treatments to improve the treatments’ effectiveness and help people feel their best.

Palliative care may be especially useful for people with breast cancer. As research notes, people who have metastatic breast cancer (breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body) can live for many years with their condition. In treating metastatic breast cancer, health care providers may — importantly — focus much more on prolonging life span than on maintaining comfort and well-being. This can take a toll on the person going through treatment. Palliative treatments can help you better manage your symptoms and deal with the negative effects of cancer treatment.

Some palliative care costs are covered by health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid. Services may be provided in several settings, such as your home, an outpatient facility, a hospital, a long-term care facility, or your doctor’s office. If you’re a veteran, you may have access to free or low-cost palliative care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Talk to your oncologist, health insurance carrier, and cancer center to learn more about your options, including whether you might need a referral for this type of care.

You can use the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s search tool to find palliative care planning options near you.

Physical Symptoms and Side Effects

Your palliative care team will likely include specialists who work together to address your concerns and needs. You may meet with specialists such as social workers, nurses, registered dietitians, physical therapists, pain management professionals, psychiatrists, and massage therapists. Palliative care can help you manage issues like difficulty sleeping, fatigue, nausea, constipation, poor appetite, shortness of breath, and pain.

A palliative care team also can help you address both the short-term and lasting effects of cancer treatment. In some studies, palliative care has also been shown to extend the life span of those living with a serious illness.

Financial and Social Support

As part of palliative care, a social worker can help you manage different aspects of living with breast cancer — finding a ride to your appointments, applying for disability or medical leave, finding child care assistance, and communicating with friends and family about your condition. These tasks can often pile up and overwhelm you if you have to handle them all on your own.

A breast cancer diagnosis doesn’t just affect the individual. Often, loved ones and caregivers need support and resources as well. Palliative care can provide family members and loved ones with emotional support, as well as practical advice about how to manage day-to-day responsibilities. How to fill out complicated medical forms, deal with insurance companies, and find housing and transportation are all potential topics of conversation families can have with a palliative care team. By involving a palliative care team early on, you’ll give yourself and your loved ones valuable support and easy access to assistance if unexpected changes occur.

Emotional, Spiritual, and Mental Health

According to the American Psychological Association, people diagnosed with breast cancer often feel distressed and worry about their disease. These emotions can lead to negative outcomes, such as withdrawing from family and friends. Dealing with these negative emotions as soon as they arise is important.

Seeking help from a mental health professional is important for both your mental health and physical health. Psychologists can teach you to use relaxation exercises, meditation, self-hypnosis, and imagery to better manage your emotions, as well as treatment side effects like nausea. This can all be part of a comprehensive palliative care program.

If symptoms of depression are affecting your daily life, a mental health specialist could offer talk therapy or medication interventions.

One MyBCTeam member shared: “I started taking my Xanax regularly yesterday evening, and this morning, I actually felt more alive and ready to enjoy the day. I’m going to be less worried about taking too much and taking it regularly. Now I feel more like me.”

For some people, having a health condition like breast cancer brings up the desire to explore spirituality or religion. Depending on your personal needs and beliefs, chaplains and other religious leaders can be included on your palliative care team.

Palliative Care Models for Breast Cancer

There is no universal right or wrong way to go about palliative cancer care. Rather, there are several models your team may use.

One model is called oncologist-based palliative care. In this model, the oncologist is the lead doctor in charge of your care, both medical and palliative. A palliative specialist may help the oncologist with more difficult situations.

Another model is called the concurrent model of care. In this model, the oncologist and the palliative care specialist work together to create a customized plan of care that can help you achieve your goals.

Ultimately, your cancer care is your decision. Whether you’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer or have already undergone chemotherapy or radiation, ask your oncologist for more information about palliative care services to improve your health and well-being.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyBCTeam, the social network for people with breast cancer, more than 57,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with breast cancer.

Have you considered palliative care? What types of services are you interested in? Share your story in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyBCTeam.

Posted on July 26, 2022
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Richard LoCicero, M.D. has a private practice specializing in hematology and medical oncology at the Longstreet Clinic Cancer Center, in Gainesville, Georgia. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anika Brahmbhatt is an undergraduate student at Boston University, where she is pursuing a dual degree in media science and psychology. Learn more about her here.

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