At a time when assisted dying dominates discussion about end-of-life care, I think it’s important to address public fears around palliative care so that people can use the information to improve their quality of life.
Palliative care is not what happens when all treatments have failed. It does not mean “giving up” or “stopping the fight.” If you are fighting cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease, palliative care means a team of people — such as doctors, nurses, social workers and others — will help make sure you have what you need to continue fighting.
As a palliative care physician, I am deeply committed to improving end-of-life experiences for people and their families. My focus is not on the disease itself but on the impact it can have, like relieving the severity of symptoms with the overall goal of improving quality of life.
It’s my job to know what matters to you and to make sure you’re not spending time and energy on bothersome symptoms that needlessly wear you down. Pain is a good example: terrible pain from cancer can be exhausting, consume a ton of energy and is worse for the body than any medications aiming to manage the pain. There is no need for a person fighting cancer to also try fighting pain.
There is now very clear evidence that people who receive specialized palliative care actually live longer than those who do not. This is why it’s so important to understand that palliative care is not about giving up — far from it. It’s about living the very best you can for as long as you do.
Palliative care should be provided by family doctors, specialists and many other health care professionals who are already treating people for disease. This includes basic symptom management, emotional and mental health support and the ability to discuss advance care planning and goals of care. For a person who has complex palliative care needs, specialized palliative care clinicians are needed. If you or your family member is living with a serious life-limiting illness, don’t fear speaking up and requesting a referral to palliative care.
Having been in this field for close to 20 years, I understand that most people hear “palliative care” and think of dying and death. I appreciate that for people with long-term, debilitating conditions such as cancer or congestive heart failure or multiple sclerosis, avoiding gloomy subjects like this might seem best. But I hope that as people learn the real meaning and use of palliative care, they will open up about it, and the unnecessary fears will be erased. This fear only adds to the length of time before every Canadian is able to access to quality palliative care.
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