Recently I was invited out for coffee from a dear friend. She looked across the table from me and teary eyed she said, “My doctor told me I should see a palliative care doctor, I didn’t know I was dying.” My friend, we will call her Betty, was diagnosed a year ago with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She is a young 52-year-old mom of three who is fighting to see her youngest graduate from high school. She admits she is struggling with pain and nausea from her chemotherapy treatments but was caught off guard about the term “palliative care.” Wasn’t that hospice? “But I’m not ready to stop treatment,” she stated. Betty went on to share some of her emotional and social concerns related to her cancer. Who will speak for her when she is no longer able to, who will help with the grief her family is feeling, and how will she know when it is time to stop treatment?
Betty has the same concerns and questions many chronically ill patients have. And now you can add “What is palliative care and how does it fit into my medical care plan?” to the list. Palliative Care is a specialty in healthcare that is focused on quality of life for patients with chronic illnesses. A multi-disciplinary team works with the individual to treat symptoms of their disease and improve his or her quality of life. In Betty’s case, the Palliative Care team will collaborate with her physician to decrease her treatment induced pain and nausea. Additionally, the Palliative Social Worker can assist Betty and her circle of support with end of life planning, ensuring Betty’s voice and healthcare desires will be known. Often times Palliative Care visits can be done at Betty’s home with the medical provider and a Clinical Social Worker. If additional support is needed, such as spiritual, the Palliative Care team would use Chaplains and or volunteers to support the individual and the family.
While Betty has cancer, Palliative Care can provide support to patients with many different chronic diseases such as, chronic heart disease, lung disease, kidney failure – really any chronic illness where symptom management, emotional and social support is needed. Patients can continue curative treatments and see their other specialists (such as the oncologist). The Palliative Care team is not about curing the individual’s chronic illness, but they will focus on symptom management and emotional/social support allowing every day to count for the individual and the family. It is truly about improving quality of life.
Most of Piper Frithsen’s nearly 25 years of nursing experience has been spent in Tucson area hospitals. Currently the Administrator of Casa de la Luz Hospice, she oversees the clinical aspects of both the Hospice and Community Palliative Care program. Piper is also a recipient of the prestigious Fabulous 50 Award for nursing excellence.