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Palliative care vs. end-of-life care: Debunking the myths

September 06, 2017

Medical breakthroughs and advances in technology have resulted not only in the average American living longer than ever before. And the same is true for people living with chronic illnesses such as heart failure, diabetes, COPD and cancer.

While people are now living well into their old age, chronic conditions can still fill those extra years with pain, depression, complications and even disabilities. This has caused a rise in the prevalence of palliative care.

The main purpose of palliative care is to relieve the pain and other bothersome symptoms experienced by people living with serious illness. It is meant to make people feel better -- mind, body and spirit.

Unfortunately, palliative care often is misunderstood by both patients and families. Here are four of the biggest misconceptions surrounding palliative care, and the actual truth behind them…

Myth #1: By accepting palliative care, you must immediately stop all other treatments  

Think of palliative care as that which improves one’s quality of life, not as end-of-life care. In fact, palliative care can begin at the same time and run concurrently with the treatments for the illness. 

In addition, major healthcare systems such as Medicare and Medicaid recognize that many people who are nowhere near end of life can benefit greatly from the additional support and pain relief that comes with palliative care.

Myth #2: Palliative care and hospice are the same thing

The truth is, palliative care and hospice care are quite different. Unlike palliative care, hospice requires that a patient be certified by two doctors as being six months from death and does require stopping most curative treatments. Palliative care offers benefits for people living life with a chronic illness at any time.

Myth #3: By electing palliative care, you are giving up

Choosing palliative care is not giving up, but choosing to live your life more comfortably.

In fact, some medical professionals believe that unrelieved pain and discomfort can produce mood disorders like depression and can actually hasten death. Choosing palliative care to improve quality of life can be empowering for patients and help them to feel as though they are wielding some control over their illness.

Myth #4: Palliative care shortens one’s life expectancy

Studies have shown that providing palliative care, alongside standard care, not only improves many people’s quality of life, but it also extends their lives, especially when the palliative care is added early in the illness.

A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010 followed patients with metastatic small cell lung cancer, a very serious diagnosis that is almost always fatal. All patients in the study had standard cancer care (surgery, radiation, chemotherapy), and half also received early palliative care. After 12 weeks, the people who received palliative care reported less depression, were less likely to receive aggressive measures such as chemotherapy in their last week of life, and actually lived longer (an average of 2.7 months) than those who did not receive palliative care.

Take charge of your journey

You can learn more about palliative care directly from specialist Chirag Patel, MD, at Kettering Cancer Care’s “Take Charge of Your Cancer Journey” event on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at Kettering Cancer Center in the Pavilion on the campus of Kettering Medical Center. A mini-health fair and light refreshments begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by a presentation at 6 p.m. that will provide detailed information about palliative care and the important role it has in holistic approach to cancer care. Click here to register for the event.