August 19, 2010 in Nation/World

Palliative care extended lives, cancer study says

Marilynn Marchione Associated Press
 

Palliative care, which helps the gravely ill make the most of the time they have left, provided a surprising bonus for terminal lung cancer patients: More time left to enjoy.

A study found that patients who started soon after their diagnosis on palliative care along with the usual cancer care lived nearly three months longer than people given only standard cancer care, even though this second group had more chemotherapy.

That’s a big difference. Patients like this typically live less than a year after diagnosis, said study leader Dr. Jennifer Temel, a cancer specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where the study was done.

The results, in today’s New England Journal of Medicine, could affect the care of a lot of people: More than half of lung cancer patients have incurable disease by the time they are diagnosed.

Palliative care involves doctors, nurses, social workers, nutritionists and even chaplains who specialize in pain control and treating nausea, shortness of breath and other symptoms that affect quality of life. It’s not the same as hospice or comfort care, when doctors think a patient has less than six months to live and treating the illness no longer helps.

It really means “helping people live as well as they can, as long as they can,” said Dr. Vicki Jackson, acting chief of palliative care at Massachusetts General.

The study was one of the best tests yet of palliative care, and the results should ease many fears about starting it soon after diagnosis, doctors say.

“One of the most common misconceptions about palliative care is that it indicates treatment has failed, that it means giving up,” Jackson said.

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