When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer at an incurable stage, certain words start to mean more. Take ‘palliative’ for example. Before I was diagnosed I had always associated the word ‘palliative’ with someone who had a terminal disease and this type of care was to make the final days/weeks as comfortable as possible. So it was a bit of a shock to find out in 2010 that my treatment was palliative in nature. However, I’m still not dead and I’m still receiving palliative care. Go figure! The answer is simple – the cancer story is changing. What was once feared as a death sentence is now an illness that many people survive. As survival rates increase, so too will the number of people living with the legacy of cancer and its treatment.
What is palliative care?
Some people with incurable cancer will continue to receive treatment to keep the cancer at bay and that treatment is by definition, palliative. In fact, palliative care can be given at any time during an illness. It’s not just for treatment of the cancer, it’s also to help with the effects of that treatment, i.e. the consequences of cancer. It also encompasses things such as emotional and other practical support.
In the most general terms and while it clearly can go into some detail and long lists, palliative care can be defined as follows:
Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. Relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects is an important part of cancer care. This approach is called symptom management, supportive care, or palliative care. Palliative care is any treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive palliative care.
I looked at a few sites and many of them confirm the above. However, there appears to be even more sites where it is still heavily associated and inextricably linked with end of life or hospice care where you may come into contact with the term palliative care specialist. Whilst it’s not wrong to make that association, more work needs to be done to cater for the growing numbers of ‘incurable but treatable’ who are not ‘terminal’ and still need this type of support, in some ways like you would with a chronic condition. I also sense a push in certain areas to emphasise the meaning of palliative care to include a much broader definition than is currently in most people’s minds. This needs much more publicity. I’m not saying that ‘palliative’ does not include ‘hospice care’ but I’m not intending to cover that aspect in this blog which is aimed as those with incurable but treatable cancers.
My palliative care experience
When I was diagnosed with metastatic Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs) in 2010, I quickly accepted the fact that any treatment I would receive would not be curative. I also quickly accepted that if I didn’t have any treatment, I would probably die. The words used were ‘debulking’ and ‘cytoreductive’, more technical sounding but essentially meaning the same thing as palliative. Debulking means removing as much tumour as possible in order to increase the chance that perhaps other treatments can be of some help. Cytoreductive means the same thing but generally extends the ‘debulking’ activity to other modes of treatment (e.g. chemotherapy/radiotherapy).
NETs is one of a number of cancers for which ‘debulking’ and ‘cytoreductive’ therapies can in many cases confer some survival advantage. In fact if you read ENETS or NANETS guidance for advanced NETs, you will frequently see the statement that cytoreductive surgery should be considered if greater than 90% of metastatic tumour burden can be safely resected or ablated. NETs, particularly with distant metastases, can come with a ‘syndrome’ and some of the symptoms can be rather debilitating for many patients. These syndromes are a result of tumours secreting excess amounts of hormones and the types vary from patient to patient and from NET type to NET type. It follows that if surgical debulking reduces the amount of tumours, then it should normally decrease the effects of the associated syndrome. In fact, one letter from a specialist did describe my surgery in symptom palliation terms. I can confirm this is about right as my hormone marker 5HIAA remained elevated after surgery to remove my primary and local tumours, but did not return to normal until after my liver surgery.
However, there are a number of other treatments that can be considered ‘palliative’ in a metastatic or advanced environment. Getting rid of tumours is always the optimum treatment for any cancer but just as surgical debulking can reduce the amount of cancer, other non-surgical modalities such as liver embolization or ablation can have the effect of reducing the symptoms of the cancer and therefore providing relief to the patient. Somatostatin Analogues (Octreotide/Lanreotide) are another good example of palliative care. Although they might have an anti-tumour effect for some, they mostly work by reducing or inhibiting the secretion of excess hormones which contribute to the various NET syndromes. ‘Symptom control’ is as defined above, palliative care.
I’m already looking forward to my next palliative care appointment.