Caregivers who Receive Palliative Care Support Immediately After an Advanced Cancer Diagnosis Have a Better Quality of Life

ASCO Annual Meeting
May 30, 2014

A new study demonstrates the benefits of a phone-based palliative care support program for caregivers of people with advanced cancer. The results suggest that the earlier palliative care services are introduced to caregivers, the better they will be able to cope with the caregiving experience.

Palliative care does not only mean end-of-life or hospice care. It is an extra layer of support given at every step of the treatment process and at all stages of illness. Palliative care focuses on reducing a patient’s symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families.

As part of this study, 122 family caregivers of patients with recurrent or metastatic cancer received palliative care support over the phone with an advanced practice nurse specially trained in delivering palliative care. These sessions covered how to manage problems using creativity, optimism, planning, and expert information; self-care, including healthy eating, exercise, and relaxation; how to effectively partner with the person with cancer to manage symptoms; how to build a support network; and decision-making, decision support, and advance care planning. After these sessions, the caregivers received monthly supportive care follow-up phone calls. One group of caregivers started this phone-based program within two weeks of agreeing to participate in the study, while the other group started 12 weeks later.

The researchers found that overall quality of life, depression, and feelings of being overwhelmed by the demands of caregiving all improved in the group that started the program immediately compared with those who started later. The timing of the start of the program had a large effect on decreasing depression and a small to medium effect on improving quality of life and decreasing the perceived burden of caregiving. 

What this means for patients

“Family caregivers are a crucial part of the patient care team. Because the well-being of one affects the well-being of the other, both parties benefit when caregivers receive palliative care,” said senior study author Marie Bakitas, DNSc, Marie L. O'Koren Endowed Chair and Professor at the University of Alabama School of Nursing in Birmingham. “We found that when caregivers began receiving palliative care support around the time of the patient’s advanced cancer diagnosis, they had less depression, perceived themselves to be less burdened by performing caregiving tasks, and had a better quality of life.” To find palliative care programs for caregivers in your local area, Dr. Bakitas recommends using the online family care navigator tool provided by Family Caregiver Alliance’s National Center on Caregiving. Talk with your insurance provider to find out if this type of counseling is covered by your plan.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • If I am feeling overwhelmed by caregiving, what types of support and resources are available?
  • What is palliative care? How is it different from hospice care?
  • Does this hospital or cancer center provide palliative care services to both patients and caregivers?
  • When can we start receiving palliative care services?
  • What other support services are available to me? To my family?

More Information

Caregiver Support

Caring for the Symptoms of Cancer and its Treatment

Advanced Cancer Care Planning

Finding Support and Information