This one-stop shop offers patients pain-management strategies, emotional support, nutritional guidance and more.
You’ve heard of “palliative care” and maybe “supportive care,” but what do these terms really mean, and who are the services for?
The field of palliative care emerged less than 100 years ago as a way to ease suffering at the end of life. However, “the reality is that palliative care is supportive care — it’s symptom management at any stage of illness, things that affect quality of life at any point in your life,” says Dr. Ishwaria Subbiah, an oncologist with a special focus on older adults and an assistant professor with the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation and Integrative Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Many who have curable cancer are still having symptoms from the disease and treatment for it. Chemotherapy is notorious for the side effects it causes, and even newer targeted therapy and immunotherapy treatments have side effects that (affect) patients’ way of life, so our practice is supporting them and their family caregivers through their cancer treatment journeys.”
At its Supportive Care Center, MD Anderson offers comprehensive symptom and side effect care given separate from — but in support of — medical, surgical and radiotherapy treatments. The department even runs clinical trials with the aim of developing better treatments for cancer-related symptoms such as pain, nausea, neuropathy, shortness of breath and emotional distress.
These services are provided by a multidisciplinary team of physicians, nurse practitioners/physician assistants, counselors, psychologists, physical therapists, nutritionists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, artists and others focused on a holistic approach to cancer symptom care. The center’s physicians are board-certified in palliative medicine, and some are also medical oncologists or specialists in geriatrics.
Usually, a patient sees his or her oncologist and the supportive care team separately but on the same day. The visit with the medical oncologist is dedicated to discussion about cancer status and treatment options, and the time with supportive care is devoted to holistic care focused on symptoms and the overall well-being of the patient and the caregivers and family. The oncology and supportive care teams frequently update each other, particularly if a patient is having an uncontrolled symptom such as cancer pain, nausea or anxiety. This ensures that the teams synchronize care for their mutual patient.
The offerings at MD Anderson’s Supportive Care Center provide a good overview of what this type of care can include. Patients being treated at hospitals without such departments can ask physicians to refer them elsewhere in their communities for supportive care. For the vast majority of patients, health insurance covers supportive care visits, Subbiah says, although some integrative therapies, such as acupuncture, may not be covered.
So, what happens during a first visit to this center? Here’s a walk-through of the experience, which generally lasts 45 minutes to an hour but can span two to three hours if the patient has the time and willingness to meet with several members of the multidisciplinary team.