Treating Pancreatic Cancer – How Palliative Care Helps

By Andrew Esch, MD

Pancreatic cancer is a devastating disease for patients and their families, with a heavy burden of pain and other symptoms. If you are living with pancreatic cancer, you don’t have to walk this road alone. Palliative care can help. 

Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people living with serious illnesses, like pancreatic cancer. This type of care is focused on 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.

Depending on the stage of your disease, treatments for pancreatic cancer may include surgery (if the cancer has not spread beyond the pancreas), chemotherapy, radiation, and therapy that targets specific parts of cancer cells.

Ask for a Palliative Care Referral Early

You can and should ask for palliative care as early as possible if you’re experiencing pain and other symptoms. While there are many uncertainties with pancreatic cancer, treatments can slow it down, reduce side effects and in some cases get rid of the cancer. Your palliative care team will work with your cancer doctor to help you and your family understand your treatment options and match those treatments to your goals.  

In fact, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network “strongly recommends that symptom management and supportive (palliative) care should be provided early in a patient’s diagnosis.” They also say “there are many benefits to starting it early” and this is in sync with recommendations from the main organization representing cancer doctors – the American Society of Clinical Oncology. This helps your cancer doctor focus on treating your cancer, while the palliative care team focuses on helping you feel as well as possible.

Your palliative care team will tell you about the side effects of treatments, and what can be done to prevent or relieve them. They will help you balance the possible side effects against the symptoms of the disease itself, so you can make informed decisions about your care.

People with pancreatic cancer live with a lot of difficult symptoms, including pain, intestinal blockages, fatigue, depression and weight loss. Your palliative care team will work closely with your other doctors to manage all these symptoms as well as possible, and will give you advice about how to make changes to your diet to help you avoid intestinal blockages and keep you out of the hospital.

Palliative care is available in most hospitals, and it is growing quickly in outpatient clinics. In some areas, palliative care teams make home visits. The way to get palliative care is to ask your cancer doctor for a referral. If you don’t know where to find it, you can also search this Provider Directory.

To learn more about palliative care, read this list of frequently asked questions, and see tips on how to ask your primary doctor for a referral to a palliative care team. You can also listen to this podcast featuring a real story about how palliative care helped one family when the mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Esch is medical education consultant to the Center to Advance Palliative Care. A palliative care specialist, Dr. Esch focuses on improving quality of life for patients and their families as they face serious illness. Dr. Esch earned his medical degree from the University of Buffalo.

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