The goal of palliative care, also known as supportive care, is to reduce the symptoms related to serious illnesses like metastatic breast cancer (MBC).

Palliative care doesn’t fight cancer itself, but rather addresses the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual issues people with advanced cancer may face.

This type of care is usually provided by a healthcare team that includes a medical provider, social worker, and chaplain. They work in conjunction with your oncology care team to give you the best possible quality of life as you fight cancer.

You may choose to begin palliative care at any time during any stage of cancer.

Palliative care can also be used while you’re undergoing chemotherapy or another type of cancer treatment. You don’t have to wait until treatments fail or you’re approaching end of life in order to receive palliative care.

Early use of palliative care services not only helps improve quality of life but has also been shown to help people with some types of cancer live longer compared with people who receive only standard treatment.

All hospice care is palliative care, but not all palliative care is hospice care.

Both aim at improving comfort and quality of life for people with serious illnesses. But unlike hospice, palliative care is available early on in the disease course and doesn’t depend on the stage of your illness.

On the other hand, hospice care is available for adults with a terminal illness, usually when they are expected to live 6 months or less.

Unlike hospice care, palliative care can be used alone or along with standard cancer treatment. Hospice care is for people who have no further treatments available to them or who choose not to prolong their lives with disease-directed treatments because the burdens outweigh the benefits.

Palliative care looks different from person to person. A palliative care team will work with your oncology team. Together, they’ll come up with a plan to manage your MBC symptoms, side effects of therapies, and address your social, emotional and spiritual needs.

Palliative care can provide many benefits and depends on your individual needs.

Managing symptoms and side effects

Palliative care can provide treatment for many symptoms of breast cancer as well as the unwanted side effects of cancer treatments like chemotherapy.

Symptoms and side effects that it can help with may include:

  • anxiety
  • pain
  • constipation
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • numbness or weakness in certain areas of your body
  • trouble urinating
  • shortness of breath
  • diarrhea

Palliative care may include medications, diet changes, or lifestyle recommendations. It can also help you recover after surgery.

Pain management

Pain management can be central to improving your overall quality of life.

Living with MBC doesn’t have to mean living with pain. Palliative care to address pain may include:

  • pain medications, including over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription pain relievers
  • pain management techniques, such as guided imagery, acupressure, hypnosis, and acupuncture
  • therapies, including physical therapy, chiropractic therapy, and massage

Emotional support

Palliative care can offer comfort during a difficult period. It has been shown to reduce depression in women with advanced breast cancer.

Research has found that people with advanced cancer who also had symptoms of depression benefited the most when they started palliative care early.

Palliative care specialists can provide resources to help people and their families deal with the emotions that exist following a cancer diagnosis. They can refer you to a mental health professional, like a counselor or psychiatrist, or prescribe medications to help with depression and anxiety.

Palliative care experts help people explore their beliefs and values so that they can make decisions about their healthcare that are aligned with what is important to them.

Caregiver needs

Family members and friends are often tasked with becoming a caregiver for people with cancer. These caregivers can easily become overwhelmed or burned out by the extra responsibilities placed upon them.

A palliative care specialist can assess a caregiver’s level of stress and well-being. If needed, they can make recommendations for additional support. This may include caregiver support groups, counseling, or community resources.

They can also facilitate communication among family members, other caregivers, and your providers to help ensure everyone is on the same page.

Ask your oncology care team about palliative care. Depending on your individual needs, your doctor may refer you directly to a palliative care specialist.

Many national cancer organizations also maintain directories to help locate a palliative care specialist in your area. For example, the Center to Advance Palliative Care has a list of providers by state.

People with MBC may receive palliative care in the hospital, an outpatient clinic, a long-term care facility, or at home.

To prepare for a consultation with a palliative care specialist, prepare a list of your symptoms and how they impact your everyday life. Be sure to also bring a list of medications you’re taking.

If possible, be prepared to discuss any personal, religious, or cultural beliefs that may be important to consider in your treatment decisions. You may also want to bring a friend or family member to your appointment.

Your palliative care team will work alongside your oncologist to coordinate a plan that aligns with your treatment regimen for breast cancer.

Some aspects of palliative care are often covered by private insurances as well as Medicare and Medicaid.

Palliative care has been proven to reduce costs for both patients and healthcare payers. People receiving this type of care often spend fewer days in the hospital, emergency rooms, and intensive care units (ICU) than those who don’t receive it.

If you don’t have health insurance or are unsure about coverage, ask your doctor to refer you to a social worker or financial counselor for more help.

The goal of palliative care is to lessen pain and improve overall quality of life for people with serious illnesses like MBC. The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends that all people with advanced cancer receive palliative care.

You don’t have to give up treatment for breast cancer in order to receive palliative care. Even if you’ve just received a diagnosis and are in the early stages of treatment, ask your doctor for a referral to a palliative care specialist for this added layer of support.