Stage 4 breast cancer, or advanced breast cancer, is a condition in which the cancer has metastasized, or spread from the breast to one or more other areas of the body. In other words, cancer cells have separated from the original tumor, traveled through the bloodstream, and are now growing elsewhere. Common sites of breast cancer metastases include the bones, brain, liver, lungs, and lymph nodes. Stage 4 breast cancer is considered to be incurable, but in many cases treatments are available.
What Is Palliative Care?
Palliative care involves treating unpleasant symptoms of the cancer, both physical and emotional. Some examples of palliative care include:
- traditional pain medications, like over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription painkillers
- non-medical pain management techniques, like massage, acupressure, and acupuncture
- social and emotional support through loved ones
- broader support through community groups, online forums, and email groups
- overall health and wellness support, diet and exercise
- religious, spiritual, meditative, and/or prayer activities
The goal of palliative care is to help the patient feel better, rather than to cure or treat the cancer itself. It can be used alone, or along with any standard cancer treatment options.
When Is Palliative Care Appropriate?
Palliative care is always appropriate, right from the first diagnosis. Though this type of care can and should be used along with end-of-life care, palliative care is certainly not used exclusively in those situations. It can be used in conjunction with any recommended treatments that target the cancer itself, and can also help treat any unwanted side effects of the cancer treatment. Palliative care is not hospice care.
How Does Palliative Care Help?
Palliative care is about helping the patient live her life as fully as possible, despite a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis. While the cancer treatment works to prolong her life, palliative care improves the quality of that life. The physical and emotional support of palliative care can be an incredible comfort during a most difficult period.
What Is Hospice Care?
Hospice is end-of-life care for terminally ill patients who either have no treatment options, or choose not to prolong their lives with standard treatments. This type of care involves medications and other treatments to manage symptoms and side effects and keep the patient as comfortable as possible during the last days of life. Hospice care can be administered either in the patient’s own home, or in a hospital, nursing home, or hospice facility.
When Is Hospice Care Appropriate?
It is important not to wait too late to begin hospice care if it is needed. It can be a difficult decision, but the earlier hospice care begins, the more benefit the patient receives. When hospice workers have longer to get to know the patient and her unique situation, they can better create an individualized plan for care.
How Does Hospice Care Help?
Hospice care helps to ease a patient’s transition from fighting for her life to accepting death. When no treatment options remain, it can be a great relief for a patient to know that professional hospice workers will be there to make her remaining time more comfortable. Hospice care is also a big help to family members, as they don’t have to shoulder the burden of end-of-life care for their loved one all alone. Knowing a loved one isn’t in pain can also help make this challenging time more bearable for family and friends.
It’s Not About Giving Up
Both palliative care and hospice are important components of caring for someone with stage 4 breast cancer. These types of care having nothing to do with giving up, and everything to do with helping patients feel comfortable and comforted while living the best possible life they can with their condition.