Supportive care is a relatively new but very important part of cancer treatment. Supportive care services address physical, emotional, and spiritual problems that may affect patients' quality of life or ability to function. These services are provided before and during cancer treatment and are tailored to meet the needs of individual patients.
"Supportive care covers all aspects of physical and emotional suffering that occur during cancer treatment," said Eduardo Bruera, M.D., a professor in and chair of the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine and medical director of the Supportive Care Center at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. "In supportive care, we treat the whole person."
What is supportive care?
Supportive care helps patients deal with a variety of physical and emotional challenges. These challenges are different for each patient. "Some patients have pain and fatigue as the main problems," Dr. Bruera said. "Others have emotional or spiritual distress or communication issues with parents or young children."
Supportive care is similar to palliative care, which is often given to ease the suffering of patients with advanced cancer. The difference between the two, according to Dr. Bruera, is that supportive care can begin as soon as a patient is diagnosed with cancer. "We look at such care in three stages," Dr. Bruera said. "The early stage is supportive care. For patients whose cancer does not respond to treatment or returns, the later stage is palliative care. And for patients near the end of life, the last stage is hospice care."
The use of supportive care has grown steadily as doctors increasingly realize how disruptive cancer and its treatment can be for patients. While the goal of cancer treatment is to get rid of the patient's cancer, the main goal of supportive care is to improve the patient's quality of life.
Supportive care services
Dr. Bruera said that MD Anderson was the first cancer hospital in the United States to establish a supportive care center. Since then, many major cancer hospitals have established supportive care centers modeled after MD Anderson's. And even hospitals without designated supportive care centers may provide some supportive care services. Cancer patients at such hospitals can ask their treatment team or hospital patient advocate which services are available and how to access them.
At MD Anderson, both inpatients and outpatients can be referred to the Supportive Care Center by their cancer treatment team at any time during cancer treatment or even before treatment begins. Patients in the Supportive Care Center receive treatment from a team that may include doctors and nurses who specialize in supportive and palliative care; pharmacists; counselors such as psychologists and social workers; and chaplains.
The supportive care team can also refer patients to other specialists, such as pain management specialists or physical rehabilitation experts. Close collaboration between the supportive care team, the cancer treatment team, and other specialists helps ease patients' suffering while patients receive the best possible treatment for their cancer.
Another important aspect of supportive care is meeting the needs of patients' family members, especially those who act as caregivers. Cancer and its treatment can be as stressful for caregivers as for patients, and the supportive care team's social workers and chaplains give these caregivers the support and resources they need to manage that stress.
"It's very important for patients and their families to know that we understand that there are issues of physical, emotional, family, and spiritual distress in addition to the cancer itself. It's normal to have those problems when one is diagnosed with cancer," Dr. Bruera said. "The beauty is that this care is accessible at any moment after the diagnosis of cancer."
For more information, ask your physician, call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789, or visit MD Anderson's Supportive Care Center at http://bit.ly/2fv5l3G.
OncoLog, February 2018, Volume 63, Issue 2