Palliative care helps improve a person’s quality of life when they’ve been diagnosed with a serious disease. After all, dealing with a serious illness can feel isolating, confusing, and overwhelming for a patient and their family.
Palliative care brings together a team of professionals who can help a person manage the emotional, physical, practical, and even spiritual effects of their illness. But what does palliative care mean, and how does it differ from hospice care?
In this article, we’ll look at the ins and outs of the palliative care definition. We also chat with Dr. Paul Thambi, medical oncologist and CMO of Sunstone Therapies, about the ways that psychedelics may help people cope with the emotional turmoil associated with a life-threatening disease.
What Is Palliative Care?
Also known as comfort care, palliative care helps relieve the stress and symptoms associated with serious illness.
That palliative care meaning might seem broad, but this type of care is highly individualized: It’s focused on the patient’s needs, whether they need physical therapy, nutritional guidance, mental health support, pain management, or all of the above.
A palliative care team is interdisciplinary, which means that it consists of specialists who partner with the patient’s doctors as they receive treatments to cure or halt the progression of their illness.
Palliative care examples
Any health care provider can provide palliative care, depending on the patient’s needs. Here are a few examples of palliative care providers:
- Financial counselors
- Massage therapists
- Mental health providers
- Nurses and nurse practitioners
- Registered dietitians
- Social workers
The Benefits of Palliative Care
Palliative care has been shown to improve the quality of life among people with serious illnesses. It can help ease the stress and suffering associated with symptoms like fatigue, depression, difficulty sleeping, and pain.
In a 2010 study of patients with lung cancer, people who received early palliative care experienced less depression and survived for approximately 2.7 months longer than patients who received standard cancer treatment alone.1
According to the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC), approximately 90 million Americans are living with serious illnesses, and that number is expected to double over the next two decades.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the majority of adults who require palliative care have chronic diseases, such as:2
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Chronic respiratory diseases
The list above isn’t exhaustive. Comfort care can help prevent or treat the symptoms of almost any serious illness, such as dementia, kidney failure, and Parkinson’s disease.
For example, patients who need palliative care tend to experience symptoms such as pain and difficulty breathing. A palliative care team can work with a patient’s primary care doctor to provide treatments like additional medications and integrative therapies.
Palliative Care vs. Hospice Care
Here’s the biggest difference between palliative care vs. hospice care: Palliative care takes place at any stage of a life-threatening illness and happens alongside treatments meant to cure or treat the disease.3
Hospice care takes place at the end of a patient’s life when a doctor believes a patient has a terminal illness and will die within six months.4
It’s possible for palliative care to transition to hospice care. At this point, the patient has stopped receiving curative treatment.
How Do You Get Palliative Care and When?
You can get palliative care as soon as you’re diagnosed with a serious or life-threatening disease or at any stage of the illness.
Facilities such as hospitals, cancer centers, and home care agencies may offer or refer people to a palliative care service. Usually, asking your doctor for a referral is the first step to getting palliative care.
Palliative Care and Psychedelics: What Do We Need to Know?
In 2019, an article published in the medical journal Current Oncology asked, “Is there a role for psychedelics for treating patients in palliative medicine and cancer care today?”5
Emerging evidence suggests that psychedelics may play a role in palliative care. Psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin, have been associated with therapeutic benefits like improvements in mood, quality of life, and end-of-life anxiety.
For example, Johns Hopkins University and New York University researchers administered psilocybin therapy to patients with life-threatening cancers and found immediate, lasting benefits in depression and anxiety.6
It’s important to note that more clinical trials are needed to establish treatment protocols. However, early evidence suggests that psychedelics can support palliative care in multiple ways:
- The mystical experiences associated with psychedelic trips promote a sense of transcendence or unity with the universe, which may change a person’s attitude toward death.8
- Ketamine (a dissociative anesthetic often grouped into the psychedelic category) may support the formation of new nerve cell connections and healthy cell growth, which can help reduce symptoms of depression.
- Psilocybin has been shown to reduce anxiety symptoms, even after a single dose.9/li>
Additionally, MDMA-assisted therapy is being researched not only for its role in helping treat PTSD, but also for adjustment disorder in cancer patients and their significant others.
How psychedelics fit into palliative care
According to Thambi, patients who come into a psychedelic session with an open mind tend to have the most beneficial experiences. He points out that the team at Sunstone Therapies is careful about preparation sessions, setting intentions, and establishing a sense of safety and trust to empower patients to let go of the experience, even if they face something fearful—because on the other side of fear is learning.
Thambi spoke about a young woman who came to Sunstone Therapies with early-stage breast cancer and a lot of fear about the medical system. She joined a psychedelic group experience and sobbed for five hours—but she came out of that trip with new insights.
“She understood it was her fear that was preventing her from having the surgery,” Thambi said. Two months later, she went through with the procedure. “It was still early enough where it was curable. This is not only for people at the end of life, but it’s for people coping with any illness,” he said.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does palliative care always mean death?
Palliative care does not always mean death. This form of supportive care is meant to help reduce the stress and symptoms of serious disease. People can receive palliative care while they undergo treatments to cure a life-threatening illness.
Is palliative care the same as end-of-life care?
End-of-life care is hospice care, which occurs when a doctor believes a patient has six months or less to live. In contrast, palliative care doesn’t necessarily take place at the end of a person’s life.
What are the four types of palliative care?
There are many types of palliative care. Broadly, types of palliative care include emotional, physical, spiritual, and practical support (such as helping families find resources for transportation, financial counseling, or housing).
Can you get palliative care at home?
You can receive palliative care at home, depending on your needs. For example, some healthcare providers may offer physical therapy, medical evaluations, and counseling at home.
Palliative care helps relieve the overwhelming, isolating, and serious effects of a life-threatening illness such as cancer, dementia, or heart failure. This type of care offers extra support that can help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.
Unlike hospice care, which takes place at the end of a person’s life, palliative care services happen simultaneously as treatments to cure or halt the progression of a disease. Examples include nutrition counseling, mental health support, integrative therapies, and experimental treatments like psychedelic-assisted therapy.
- Temel JS, Greer JA, Muzikansky A, et al. Early palliative care for patients with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med. 2010;363(8):733-742. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1000678
- Palliative care. Accessed July 26, 2022. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/palliative-care
- What is palliative care?: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Accessed July 26, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000536.htm
- What Are Palliative Care and Hospice Care? | National Institute on Aging. Accessed July 26, 2022. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-are-palliative-care-and-hospice-care
- Rosenbaum D, Boyle AB, Rosenblum AM, Ziai S, Chasen MR, Med MpP. Psychedelics for psychological and existential distress in palliative and cancer care. Curr Oncol. 2019;26(4):225-226. doi:10.3747/co.26.5009
- Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Carducci MA, et al. Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2016;30(12):1181-1197. doi:10.1177/0269881116675513
- Ross S, Bossis A, Guss J, et al. Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2016;30(12):1165-1180. doi:10.1177/0269881116675512
- Grof S, Goodman LE, Richards WA, Kurland AA. LSD-assisted psychotherapy in patients with terminal cancer. Int Pharmacopsychiatry. 1973;8(3):129-144.
- Barrett FS, Doss MK, Sepeda ND, Pekar JJ, Griffiths RR. Emotions and brain function are altered up to one month after a single high dose of psilocybin. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):2214. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-59282-y