Demystifying palliative care

The term ‘palliative care’ is often misunderstood. It is frightening because mostly we associate it only with end of life.

While palliative care does support people through their final months and weeks to ensure they are comfortable, it actually offers much more and can have many benefits if used early.

Common misunderstandings with palliative care are that:

  • it is only offered to you when you are in your last months or weeks of life
  • you will no longer receive treatment aimed at controlling your cancer and prolonging your life
  • you won’t see your medical oncologist, breast care nurse or other members of your treating team.

In fact, none of these things are true.

Palliative care services can complement your breast cancer treatment and help you manage your illness so you can continue to live your life as fully and as comfortably as possible. You can dip in and out of it, using services just when you need them – for example, to get pain under control.

‘My palliative care team has been amazing. They linked me with services and supports that would have been great to know about three years ago when I was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.’ – BCNA member

Getting to know your palliative care team early, while you are still feeling relatively well, can be helpful so that you know who they are and how they can support you in the future. Some of the services that you might find helpful at different times include:

  • help to manage pain and other symptoms, for example vomiting or shortness of breath
  • provision of equipment, such as a shower chair or special bed, to help you at home
  • helping your family to have difficult conversations together, or to talk to children about your illness
  • connecting you to other services such as home help and financial support
  • support to help you with cultural obligations
  • counselling and grief support
  • referrals to respite care services.

‘I  see a palliative care nurse practitioner regularly about prevention – deep breathing to prevent pneumonia, for instance.’ – BCNA member

Many people are surprised to learn that palliative care offers a family-centred model of care. It is there not just for you, but for your family as well. This means that your family and carers can receive practical and emotional support, as well as physical support such as home help or access to equipment that can help you live independently.

Many people find that support for their family is as valuable as the support they receive themselves.

BCNA has resources that can help you to better understand the benefits of palliative care.

In our podcast How palliative care can help – symptom management, BCNA Community Liaison Marie Pandeloglou shares her experience of using palliative care services, and Medical Oncologist and Palliative Medicine Physician Associate Professor Michael Franco explains, among other things, how palliative care can help with symptom management, when to access it, and what the costs are.

The Palliative Care Toolkit is another online resource that is available free of charge. Developed by BCNA and Palliative Care Australia, it asks five questions about the concerns you may have related to your illness and provides you with information specific to your needs. It also has information about palliative care services that may be available in your area.

Issue 87
Spring 2020