By Adil Akhtar, MD
When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, it can be easy to lose sight of the body as a whole. Instead, the disease becomes the sole focus, and we see only a war to be won. Cancer, however, is just one small part of the body – and when it becomes the focal point, the rest of the body suffers as a result.
In my view, we can better serve our patients if we shift the treatment philosophy to the holistic treatment of the patient as a whole. The goals of care, then, should be treatment and healing – not starting a war against the cancer.
When framed as a war, patients may view stopping treatment as “giving up” if the cancer does not respond. They may also delay or refuse palliative care altogether, even though it can greatly improve their comfort, well-being, and overall quality of life for both the patient and their family.
Palliative care helps the patient through their journey of serious illness by understanding what is important to them, and then setting medical goals that are achievable. By addressing the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the patient as a whole, palliative care offers a holistic approach to care and can be used either with curative treatment or on its own.
Although palliative care can be implemented at any stage of a patient’s illness, it is most beneficial when engaged proactively and early on in the process. Delaying it—or refusing it entirely—can result in patient anxiety, increased hospital readmissions, and lower quality of life.
Patients must understand then, that is that this is not about waging a war; it is about treatment and the health of their body as a whole. For some, this can be a seismic shift in perspective. But if patients can learn to see that their bodies as more important than the cancer itself (and if we as physicians and health care professionals can help them learn to look at it this way), they will be more likely to continue with treatment. Above all, a holistic approach offers a greater quality of life for both patients and their families – and when it comes to cancer, this is a victory all in its own.