Sherri Cervantez, MD, Director of Palliative Oncology, UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center

Sally Cain was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in May 2022 after experiencing a nagging pain in her right side. Sally has experienced great support from her Palliative Care team in Texas. Her husband died a year before, and regrettably, he did not have a palliative care team.

What is Palliative Care?

Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing life-threatening illness. A team of doctors, nurses, social workers, and other specialists work with a patient’s existing physicians to provide an extra layer of support and specialized care. Palliative care aims to alleviate suffering, nurture comfort, and promote understanding for people living with lung cancer. It is a holistic and compassionate care designed to relieve symptoms, pain, and stress.

Palliative Care focuses on making patients as functional as possible for as long as possible during critical illness care. By addressing symptom support and patient priorities/values, the palliative care team incorporates them into the patient’s medical management. While it may overlap with hospice care, which is usually closer to end-of-life care, palliative care is distinct. Referrals can come from oncologists, nurses, or patient self-referral

Palliative care uses a team approach to support patients with serious illnesses like lung cancer. The team includes a physician, social worker, chaplain, nurse, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and psychologist. They work together to fully understand the patient’s symptoms, concerns, and understanding of their illness. Palliative care appointments are longer than typical doctor visits, lasting 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. This allows the team to really get to know the patient as a person. Most insurance plans cover palliative care.

Benefits of Palliative Care

For lung cancer patients, palliative care can help manage symptoms like cough, chest pain, shortness of breath, and fear of struggling to breathe. The team also addresses any guilt or stigma patients may feel about their smoking history.

Mary Cain, a stage 4 lung cancer patient, has found palliative care visits to be incredibly valuable. The team takes the time to address concerns and symptoms that her other doctors are too busy to fully discuss with her. They provide mental and emotional support throughout her lung cancer journey. This patient wants others to know that palliative care is different from hospice. She encourages fellow lung cancer patients to use palliative care as an extra layer of hopeful, uplifting support.

“I’m pleased that my daughter encouraged me to do palliative care. I just feel like there’s hope. Maybe I’ll get to see my granddaughter have her fifth birthday party.” – Mary Cain

Palliative care provides critical symptom management, emotional support, and improved quality of life for lung cancer patients at any stage. In reality, only 19% of patients are referred to palliative care when they first start treatment. This number increases to just 38% for those receiving chemotherapy. While currently underutilized, it is a covered service that patients and families are encouraged to seek out and take full advantage of. The extra time and attention from the palliative care team helps patients feel supported and hopeful during their lung cancer journey.

“I can’t stress enough how helpful it can be, not just for patients but also for their family members. We didn’t really talk about the caregiver burden and the distress that loved ones and family members might experience as their family members go through cancer care. But that’s another aspect of palliative care that we try and dig into and try to help support so that the patient can feel better and get the best care.” – Dr. Sherri Cervantez, MD

Palliative care not only benefits the patient but also supports family members and caregivers. The emotional and psychological impact of lung cancer on both patients and their loved ones is another way palliative care teams strive to address challenges to ensure the best possible care and quality of life for the patient.


What is Palliative Care?
Palliative Care & Lung Cancer