Beyond Radiation Therapy

Dr Michelle Mackay Turville Bay

Caring for a patient’s health sometimes means treatment beyond the radiation therapy that about three quarters of cancer patients receive. As a radiation oncologist I am often called upon to help patients in other ways through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Like palliative care, given throughout a patient’s treatment, to improve a patient’s quality of life. A recent post to Turville Bay’s Facebook page was written by a woman with metastatic cancer. She is one of the millions of Americans living with chronic cancer. Frustrated by the interchangeable use of the terms hospice and palliative care, Sarah Debord is on a mission to stop “medical illiteracy.” What are these two very different kinds of care and when are they used?

Hospice care is given most often in the last 6 months of life. It may be given in a hospital setting, in a specialized facility, or it can be received at home by a visiting nurse, as our SSM Health at Home colleagues offer.  End of life is a part of life and hospice care helps patients and their family’s transition through it.

Palliative care, however, can be offered at the time of diagnosis or anytime thereafter in a patient’s cancer journey. Palliative care focuses on treating symptoms of the cancer and sets the goal of improving quality of life. Since it is also designed to reduce stress and worry, palliative care may include pastoral care. It can be financial counseling for those struggling with the cost of treatment and childcare. It might include nutritional care. Here at Turville Bay it is a type of radiation therapy used to treat metastatic cancer, to reduce pain, control symptoms, and to provide patients with better quality of life. Sarah says, “It won't change the outcome of their disease, but it will improve the completeness of care they receive along the way.” Think of palliative care as the support we need when a cancer diagnosis may not be curable, but manageable.

We advocate for palliative care at the appropriate times and we deliver a form of it here in our center.  It treats the patient as a whole, with appropriate goals given the disease state, and can significantly improve quality of life.