Breast Cancer and Palliative Care

Being diagnosed with breast cancer is scary. Suddenly the world is turned upside down, and life becomes full of doctor visits, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. You are faced with the need to make health care decisions, plan for your future and your family’s. You also may be suffering from pain or other symptoms such as nausea, fatigue and anxiety. Everything feels overwhelming.

Breast Cancer Symptoms and Treatment—How Palliative Care Can Help

Breast cancer patients often have to choose from among different treatment options, which can include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But treatments have a variety of side effects, such as pain, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, shortness of breath, depression and constipation. This is where palliative care comes in.

Palliative medicine, or palliative care, is specialized medical care focused on relief of the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in your illness and can be provided along with treatment meant to cure.

The oncologist, surgeon and radiation doctors are experts at treating breast cancer. But the disease is only a part of what patients struggle with. When palliative care teams work in partnership with cancer specialists, patients with breast cancer experience reduced symptoms, better communication and psychological and spiritual care; they also have someone to help them plan for the future. Once symptoms are controlled, patients can get back to daily activities.

People with breast cancer may worry about how to talk to family and friends about the illness. They may also have questions and concerns about treatment choices. Palliative care teams are highly skilled in communicating with seriously ill patients and their families and can be very important in helping everyone involved understand the treatment options. They will also help you navigate the health care system and anticipate future issues that may arise.

Members of the palliative care team are there for you to talk to about depression, anxiety and worries about body image and sexuality. (Even though breast cancer is mainly a female disease, men, too, can have it and suffer emotionally as well.) Palliative care teams provide support not only for patients but also for their families, who also experience distress in the face of this illness. Feeling supported themselves by palliative care specialists, family members are, in turn, better able to offer support to their loved ones.

Palliative care can take place in the hospital or in an outpatient setting. Breast cancer patients have a better chance of improved quality of life at every stage of the illness with palliative care to help them.

Amy’s Palliative Care Story: Living Well with Breast Cancer

How to Get Palliative Care

If you or a loved one needs palliative care, ask your doctor for a referral.

Finding a hospital with a palliative care team in your area is easy. Just go to GetPalliativeCare.org/providers for a state-by-state list. To find out if palliative care is right for you, take our quiz.