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Friday | 6 March | 2015

What is palliative care?

What is palliative care?

Many people associate palliative care with the end of life. But evidence suggests the earlier people with secondary breast cancer are introduced to palliative care, the better their quality of life.

According to national guidance, people diagnosed with secondary breast cancer should be offered the option of palliative care early after their diagnosis. But, according to Clinical Nurse Specialist Tara Beaumont, there’s a lot of confusion about what palliative care is and when it should be offered.

‘The word “palliate” means to alleviate or make better,’ says Tara, ‘so palliative care is about managing the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment. Palliative care often takes a “holistic” approach and involves physical, psychological, spiritual and social aspects.

‘Lots of people, including some healthcare professionals, think palliative care is just about the end of life, but this isn’t the case. Some people with secondary breast cancer do want to talk about their choices and make plans for the future, and that’s a part of palliative care, but it’s a small part.  

‘Many women who have talked to Breast Cancer Care think it may help to refer to it as “supportive care”. The aim of supportive and palliative care is not to cure cancer, but rather to manage symptoms and side effects of treatment, and help you live as well as possible with your condition.’

How can palliative care help?

Two of the most common symptoms or treatment side effects people with breast cancer experience are pain and cancer-related fatigue, and palliative care can help manage both of these.

‘All treatments for cancer come with side effects,’ says Tara, ‘and many people think they just have to put up with them. But this isn’t true. While we can’t promise to get rid of side effects completely, we can help you manage them better.

‘Palliative care might involve treatment to control pain. But equally it could involve having complementary therapies. Or you might want to see a physiotherapist who has experience in helping people with cancer.

‘Help and support may also be available for family members or carers of people with cancer.’

Palliative care might be given in a hospital or hospice, and sometimes in a person’s home.

How can I access it?

The first step is to talk to your GP, specialist team, breast care nurse or oncologist about what care is available in your area.

Access to supportive and palliative care, along with the services available, can vary depending on where you live. ‘And the confusion among some healthcare professionals about when it should be accessed can also be a barrier to people getting palliative care early enough,’ says Tara.

‘I would recommend asking what support is available to help manage your specific symptoms or side effects.’

Breast Cancer Care's Living with Secondary Breast Cancer meet-ups are designed to give you the opportunity to meet other people living with a secondary diagnosis and get relevant information and support.

Content created November 2013; next planned review 2015

Breast Cancer Care information:

Secondary breast cancer
Living with secondary breast cancer

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