I have been a dedicated palliative and supportive care specialist for the last seven years. When people ask me about palliative care, they often wonder if it is reserved for those patients who are dying. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Center for Palliative Care Excellence explains it this way: “palliative care provides relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness—whatever the diagnosis.” Simply put, I help people do and keep doing the things they love best for as long as they can.
People with cancer are more than their illness. They have lives with responsibilities, hopes, fears, and dreams beyond their diagnosis. As supportive care specialists, we are trained to recognize and partner with individuals to help them cope with and manage the physical, emotional and spiritual distress that can arise during and after cancer treatment. Our team-based approach focuses on the person as a whole.
An important concern we address is symptom management. Whether the goal is to cure or slow the progression of a disease, a cancer journey often can be fraught with distressing symptoms of pain, shortness of breath, nausea, anxiety and fatigue. Supportive care specialists work with the healthcare team to aggressively manage these symptoms. Our goal is to help a patient maintain quality of life while managing the disease, so we work closely with a person’s oncologist to develop an individualized symptom management plan that complements the patient’s treatment plan. The supportive care team can provide access to expert symptom management resources in the hospital, through clinics, and in some programs in the home. Most insurance companies typically cover referrals to supportive care specialists.
Supportive care can also provide symptom management after cancer treatment is completed or discontinued. Supportive care is available no matter where patients are in their illness, whether at diagnosis or late in the disease process. We also recognize the role of caregivers and families in providing support and try to add to this support by filling in the gaps.
Supportive care teams bring together doctors, nurses, social workers and a chaplain, to help a patient define and clarify his or her goals for care and treatment. The care team does this by helping a patient figure out what is most important and how that fits with a treatment plan. Supportive care can help individuals continue to have comprehensive care when disease targeted cancer treatment is no longer beneficial or what the individual wants.
If you are having symptoms from your illness or treatment that are difficult to control, or if you feel you are needing more support, talk to your doctor about getting a referral to a supportive care specialist. You deserve the best care that the medical system has to offer. Improving your quality of life by having an extra layer of support during your cancer journey can be an invaluable addition to your treatment plan.
About Dr. Kimberly A. Curseen
Board certified in Internal Medicine, Geriatrics, and Palliative Care, Kimberly A. Curseen, MD, is the Director of Supportive and Palliative Care Outpatient Services for Emory Healthcare. She is the director and the primary provider for the Supportive Oncology Clinic. The clinic provides physical, emotional, and spiritual care for patients with cancer at any point in their disease process. The clinic also assists patients with complex decision making.