A Quality Life: Marion’s Breast Cancer and Palliative Care Story

For Marion, breast cancer and its treatment brought pain and depression that kept her from the things she loved doing. She was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in 2014. Eventually, Marion’s oncologist referred her to palliative care.

Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people living with serious illness. This type of care is focused on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care is provided by a specially-trained team of doctors, nurses and other specialists who work together with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and it can be provided along with curative treatment.

“Since I began seeing palliative care, I am much more aware of living purposefully, of spending my time doing things that mean something,” says Marion. 

Getting started with palliative care

In her first palliative care visit, Marion met with Dr. Boris Krivitsky and the entire palliative care team at the Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte. Dr. Krivitsky’s team sees over 2,000 patients a year as they deal with various illnesses. He says it all comes down to building a real relationship with each patient.

“The importance of what we do, ultimately, comes down to us listening to the patient.  If you look at the big picture, a lot of it comes down to them sharing their stories with us so that we can better understand where they’re coming from, where they are, and where they’re going,” says Dr. Krivitsky.

Managing the pain

Dr. Krivitsky and his team helped get Marion on a pain management schedule to meet one of her goals of remaining active during the day so she can take care of her grandchildren or attend church events.  The palliative care team helped her create a plan: she takes a larger dose of pain medication at night to help her sleep. Then, during the day she takes less medication to avoid the side effects and stay busy.

“To me, the most important aspect of medical care is always answering the question, ‘What is it that we can do to help a patient achieve their goals?’ says Dr. Krivitsky.

Tackling the depression

With better pain management, Marion began to work on the stress and anxiety. For Dr. Krivitsky, this aspect of palliative care is essential.

“Obviously, I want their physical symptoms to be addressed because without that, the conversations about mental strength and coping strategies are very difficult to have if someone’s pain or insomnia is not well controlled.”

Marion and her daughters also met regularly with the palliative care team’s social worker to talk through the difficult mental hurdles she faced when preparing to start a round of radiation or chemotherapy. Once again, the priority became about setting goals for the future and living for the moment. This included accomplishing small things like attending an event or something bigger like traveling for a vacation.

Marion continues to receive palliative care as well as treatment for her cancer. She remains active in her community and keeps a full dance card.  At a friend’s backyard party, she even tried something she never imagined she would: zip-lining. For Marion, the zip-line adventure meant more to her than just a fun thing to do. It was a symbol of how far she has come.

“Really, once I got adjusted to the idea of this illness, and accepted it and digested it, I think I’ve honestly felt stronger mentally than I had felt before I was diagnosed. Palliative care gave me that strength,” she says.

Dr. Krivitsky says Marion’s story is why he entered into the palliative care profession in the first place. In 2014, he met Marion when she was at her lowest point, and now he is able to tell a different story. 

Are you or a loved on dealing with breast cancer? Find out more about how palliative care can help by clicking here. Remember, you don’t have to wait. You can have it right from diagnosis.

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