A cancer diagnosis can be life-changing. Many patients struggle to deal with the physical and emotional symptoms and side effects caused by cancer and its treatment.
That’s where supportive care comes in. It complements the care provided by oncologists by helping patients manage the associated symptoms and side effects of cancer.
To learn more about supportive care, we spoke with supportive care expert Eduardo Bruera, M.D.
Is supportive care the same as palliative care?
The goal of both supportive care and palliative care is to improve patients’ quality of life. The terms are often used interchangeably, but over time, they have adopted slightly different meanings.
“Years ago, doctors, patients and families would get a bit confused with the term ‘palliative care.’ They equated it to cancer that could not be cured or treated, which created a barrier for referrals and caused worry in patients and families,” explains Bruera. “The term ‘supportive care’ was used to communicate that we are here to support the patient and family in their physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs, and help patients better tolerate treatment.”
Studies have shown that the term ‘supportive care’ is received more favorably by patients and physicians.
“Now most cancer centers in the nation have adopted the term ‘supportive care,’ especially for outpatient services,” says Bruera. “The delivery of care when patients have very advanced disease continues to be palliative care. The term ‘supportive care’ helps convey that we see patients throughout the trajectory of their disease, not only when the disease cannot be treated.”
Who needs supportive care?
Patients who are in a lot of distress should seek out supportive care. Distress could include struggles with cancer symptoms, treatment side effects, and/or any psychological, social or spiritual concerns related to cancer or its treatment.
What does supportive care entail?
Supportive care typically involves an initial appointment with a specialist or a team of specialists who will speak with you to determine your specific supportive care needs.
The specialist may write prescriptions for new medications or schedule follow-up visits for you to speak with a counselor, chaplain or any other specialists from the supportive care team.
The supportive care team will communicate with and work with your oncologists to get you the best possible care.
“Our focus is the patient and their loved ones,” says Bruera. “We went to address whatever is meaningful to you, your spouse, your parents, your siblings, your children and so forth.”
How can I get supportive care?
He calls MD Anderson’s Supportive Care Center a one-stop place to address all those issues. Patients can ask their MD Anderson oncologist for a referral to the center.
“The referral may come after a patient expresses concern to their doctor that they’re not feeling well or are struggling emotionally,” says Bruera. “In other cases, you may be feeling well, but your doctor anticipates that you may have symptoms in the future. The doctor will refer you to supportive care as a preventive measure, so you can establish a relationship with our team.”
Physicians can refer inpatients to a mobile supportive care specialist who will provide a consultation in the patient’s hospital room.
While the initial visit requires a physician referral, patients don’t need an appointment or referral to stop by the Supportive Care Clinic after their first visit.
What can I expect at my first supportive care appointment?
During your first appointment, you’ll speak with a nurse for about 25 minutes. They’ll conduct a thorough assessment of your physical, emotional, spiritual and social symptoms. They’ll also ask about any medications you’re taking – what’s working and what’s not.
The nurse will then share that information as well as your background with a supportive care specialist. When you meet with the specialist, you’ll discuss what to do to make you feel better as well as your loved ones.
“We always follow up with every single patient,” says Bruera. “The nurse will ask how you’re doing, if your pain is any better or if your symptoms have improved. Then we can make any adjustments to your care, if needed.”
What research is being done to improve supportive care?
Bruera says the Supportive Care Center is involved in at least 22 clinical research projects at any given time to better assess the way patients feel by answering questions, such as:
- How can we treat pain more effectively?
- What treatments are more effective for fatigue?
- How can we communicate more effectively with patients and families?
- What words do you like to hear and what does not help you feel better?
- If you’re given opioids as painkillers, how can we reassure you so that you’re not afraid to take them?
- If you struggle with drug abuse, how can we help you cope with cancer, an extra disease that has been added to your life?
“The Supportive Care Center is here for you and your loved ones, so please let your doctor or nurse know if you or your family are not feeling well physically or emotionally,” says Bruera. “It’s not going to distract your oncologists from treating your cancer. There’s the disease and there’s the person. Supportive care treats the person.”
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.