Palliative care can be a lifeline for someone with advanced cancer

7 April 2017 | Linda McSweeny


Mike Mulchrone                             

When Michael Mulchrone learned the lung cancer he thought long gone had migrated to his brain and doctors mentioned palliative care in 2015, he was fearful of the journey ahead. A year-and-a-half later, Mike says palliative care wasn’t a “death blow” after all but a life-enriching experience.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was left wondering about what’s going to happen, of course…. That was a bit of a shock, boy oh boy, you know,” says Mike, aged 69.

Mike underwent brain surgery and knew little about palliative care, but has since discovered it is about tapping into personalised treatments and health care from a suite of experts to help him handle the life-limiting illness.

“When people hear the term palliative care, don’t think oh gosh, you know, that’s the end of me. It isn’t,” says Mike.

“Palliative care is not a word to dread, it’s a lifeline. And you can come out of palliative care, like I am doing now. I used to have two or three appointments a week and now I might get one a month. Hopefully, I won’t have to go at all next time. It’s a watch and wait kind of thing. Watch and wait and treat if necessary.”

He wants us all to realise that while we may fall down and struggle if facing severe illness, there’s help at hand to traverse a sometimes rocky road. People with advanced cancer can receive palliative care for days, weeks, months or years.

Palliative care offers a range of therapies to enhance life, harnessing the expertise of health professionals from a variety of fields who link up to meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs of patients. It’s an option for people with advanced cancer, which is cancer that’s unlikely to be cured.

The nature of palliative care means patients are supported in decision-making about how to handle treatment and options as to which approaches match their needs and those of their family. It’s not just about controlling pain and symptoms but encompasses holistic care that’s different for every person.

“My experience of palliative care, it has just been wonderful,” says Mike, who had depression during part of his illness.

“The people are honest and open, up-front and explain things in a way that you can understand without medical terms etc. I found them very compassionate and caring.”

Evidence shows that specialist palliative care, which involves treatment from medical professionals with extra training in palliative care, is beneficial to cancer patients, in handling pain, managing symptoms, wellbeing and health care outcomes. In fact, studies show that the sooner people get palliative care when diagnosed with advanced cancer, the better, in terms of significant improvements in both their physical and mental health. *

The focus of palliative care is on living well, not simply about dying, a myth that needs to be dispelled. “Palliative care doesn’t mean always dying,” says Professor Chye, palliative care specialist at Sacred Heart Health Service, at UNSW and the University of Notre Dame Australia.

“Palliative care is about helping patients tolerate the treatments, to continue with their treatments whilst they get palliative care – pain control, nausea control, at the same time as when they get the cancer treatment.”

Palliative care will continue to be in demand in Australia as medical advances enable patients to receive treatments later in the course of the disease and to benefit from more tolerable medications with fewer side effects, says Professor Chye.

And people of all ages benefit because palliative care is delivered regardless of age: “Palliative care is there to walk along with that patient and that family and the carers and their loved ones as well.”


More information

Advanced cancer – Living with advanced cancer, managing symptoms and the emotional impact.

End of life – Information for people with a terminal illness and their carers.

Palliative care – Detailed information about palliative care and how it works.

*What Is the Evidence That Palliative Care Teams Improve Outcomes for Cancer Patients and Their Families?