Leukemia, Lymphoma and Palliative Care

Understanding Leukemia and Lymphoma

Leukemia and lymphoma are two kinds of cancer that start in the blood system and lymph nodes. In fact, the terms leukemia and lymphoma may be used to describe a number of diseases that involve the blood cells the body uses to fight infection.

Both leukemia and lymphoma involve the spread of abnormal, cancerous cells. These cells enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system, and interfere with the critical work of those systems.

Leukemia refers to cancers that start in blood-forming tissues such as bone marrow. There are acute and chronic forms of leukemia. Acute means faster-acting, while chronic refers to slower-moving cancer that sometimes can be managed with watchful waiting (monitoring the cancer with regular checkups).

Lymphoma is cancer that starts in the lymphatic system, which helps the body fight infection. There are two main types: Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a relatively curable form of the disease. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma refers to about 30 other varieties of this disease.

Although leukemia and lymphoma are different cancers, they usually have similar symptoms, treatments and treatment side effects. Palliative care is  similar for people facing either type of cancer.

Understanding Palliative Care

Palliative (pronounced “pal-lee-uh-tiv”) care is specialized medical care for people facing serious illness. The palliative care team relieves the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness like leukemia or lymphoma. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family.

Palliative care is provided by a specially-trained team of doctors, nurses and other specialists who work together with your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage of your illness. You can have it together with curative treatment.

Palliative care not only helps to relieve your symptoms, but palliative care specialists also help you to understand complex medical information. They spend time with you to help you match your treatment options to your needs and goals. In all ways, your palliative care team helps you to better cope with the challenges of leukemia or lymphoma.

Treating Leukemia and Lymphoma—How Palliative Care Can Help

Leukemia symptoms and Lymphoma symptoms may include fatigue or low energy, cuts and bruises that take a long time to heal, bleeding from minor wounds, frequent nose bleeds, fevers or night sweats, frequent infections that are hard to fight, unexplained weight loss, or achy bones and joints. Both leukemia symptoms and lymphoma symptoms may also include depression and anxiety.

Acute forms of leukemia can appear suddenly and require urgent decisions about whether or not to go ahead with treatment. Making these kinds of leukemia treatment decisions and lymphoma treatment decisions under time pressure can be stressful for both you and your family. Working in close partnership with your primary doctor, your palliative care team can help you to sort out current medical questions and practical concerns, as well as the tough choices that lie ahead.

Strong medicines are sometimes needed to destroy cancerous cells, but they can cause side effects throughout the body. Chemotherapy, especially the aggressive forms used to fight acute leukemia and lymphoma, can have many negative effects. Nausea and vomiting, hair loss, fatigue and general discomfort are common.

These aggressive medical treatments call for equally aggressive palliative  care. Treatments provided by your palliative care team can help you tolerate the side effects of leukemia and lymphoma treatment.

Losing weight is another common symptom of leukemia and lymphoma, but your palliative care team knows what to do. Your palliative care team will also help you deal with other complications like bleeding and infection.

Helping Children

For children with leukemia, just understanding why this is happening can be difficult for everyone involved. The need for support can be even greater.

Younger patients have different sets of expectations. The disease can have greater impact on their families. The social worker on a palliative care team will spend considerable time talking to the young patient and teaching parents how to talk to their child about this disease.

Your palliative care team can help you with all this and more. The team will be your sounding board and your first line of defense against any symptoms of pain, discomfort, depression or anxiety.

The team specialists will help you and your loved ones make both large and small decisions. They will enhance communication between you, your family and your other doctors, and they will help you to clarify your goals for care.

How to Get Palliative Care

If you or a loved one is facing leukemia or lymphoma, ask your doctor for a referral to palliative care—the earlier the better. You can receive palliative care in the hospital, at an outpatient clinic and sometimes at home.

Although living with leukemia or lymphoma is a difficult journey, your burden may be eased and the best possible quality of life achieved when palliative care is involved.

For more information, visit GetPalliativeCare.org. Take our quiz to find out if palliative care is right for you. Find providers in your area by visiting our Palliative Care Provider Directory.

Podcast: JoAnn’s Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma Story