The conclusions of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggest a radical change in the way doctors and patients have approached cancer treatment.  Traditionally, cancer patients have received palliative care at the end of their lives, when curative medical treatments are no longer an option.  However, the research suggests that that cancer patients should receive palliative care as soon as possible after their diagnosis.

The study randomly split 151 recently diagnosed lung cancer patients into two groups.  One group received standard cancer treatment, while the other group received treatment and a  referral to palliative care within 12 weeks of diagnosis.  By comparing the longevity and well-being of both groups, the researchers found three key findings.  First, “patients assigned to early palliative care had a better quality of life than did patients assigned to standard care.”  Additionally “fewer patients in the palliative care group than in the standard care group had depressive symptoms.”  Lastly, “despite the fact that fewer patients in the early palliative care group than in the standard care group received aggressive end-of-life care, median survival was longer among patients receiving early palliative care.”

In a recent article in Melbourne’s The Age, Australian medical professionals highlight the importance of these findings.  Cancer specialist Ian Haines noted that the findings not only serve to highlight how palliative care can improve the quality of life of cancer patients but also that an “early referral to palliative care could help patients and carers better understand and choose between their treatment options near the end of life, reducing debilitating treatments such as chemotherapy and the futile use of finite medical resources.”  The deputy director of palliative medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital, Jennifer Philip also note that “the research had generated a lot of discussion in the medical fraternity because the possibility of prolonging life opened a new conversation about what palliative care offered people.”  She adds: ”I think there’s still a bit of anxiety around palliative care and having conversations with patients about it, so data like this could make that conversation a whole lot easier. In the past, palliative care meant things were pretty bad, whereas now it could mean we’re doing everything we can.”

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For more information:

New England Journal of Medicine

The Age