Putting Pain in the Past: Palliative Care

Several years ago, I met a young woman (I will call her Catherine) who received a new diagnosis of leukemia. Not surprisingly, she and her family were overwhelmed with the news. She had always been so healthy.

While her illness was serious, she was actively in treatment and had every hope for recovery. At the same time, she was exhausted and suffered from severe pain not relieved by acetaminophen with codeine. Because of a family history of substance abuse, she was fearful and highly resistant to taking opioid medication.

This is where palliative care came in. By counseling Catherine about her options and alleviating her concerns about addiction, she was able to experience relief from pain and focus on her cancer treatments.

Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care helps patients gain the strength to better tolerate treatment and helps those living with serious illness have a better quality of life. As more people are living longer, they are also living with conditions that require a whole host of clinical and social support. Cancer is just one form of serious illness that requires palliative care.

Palliative care also provides an extra layer of emotional and practical support for the family who is suddenly thrust into the role of caregiver, something few are trained for. Overwhelmed by the level of care their loved one requires, members of the palliative care team can help by providing emotional support to relieve the stress of caregiving. In addition to palliative care doctors and nurses, social workers are part of the team.

Certainly many factors determine whether a person will survive their disease. But pain and suffering does not have to be among them.

And Catherine? She recovered from her illness, got married and went on to graduate school.

More than 1,900 U.S. hospitals have palliative care teams today. If you or a loved one has a serious illness, please request palliative care services. Early in the illness is best. You can always have palliative care along with curative treatments. The Center to Advance Palliative Care’s consumer website, is an excellent resource for finding palliative care providers in your area.

Have you or has someone close to you benefitted from palliative care? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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