Palliative care for cancer patients prolongs life

While quality of life care often takes a back seat to traditional care for terminally ill patients, a new study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine could change all of that. The study, which randomly assigned 151 patients at Massachusetts General Hospital with lung cancer to undergo either traditional oncology treatment or oncology treatment with palliative care, found that patients in the latter group lived nearly three months longer than their counterparts. 

"Perhaps unsurprisingly, reducing patients' misery may help them live longer," Drs. Amy Kelley and Diane Meier wrote in an editorial about the study, also published in NEJM. "We now have both the means and the knowledge to make palliative care an essential and routine component of evidence-based, high-quality care for the management of serious illness." 

The study lasted from June 2006 until the end of 2009, when 105 of the patients involved (about 70 percent) had passed away. Those patients in the group receiving palliative care lived for nearly a year (11.6 months), while those receiving just the standard care lasted just under nine (8.9) months. Furthermore, the study's authors wrote, the palliative patients were shown to have "clinically meaningful improvements in quality of life and mood," and were less likely to request aggressive treatments to prolong their lives toward the end. 

For both doctors and patients, palliative care is "traditionally...something extended to a hospitalized patient in the last week of life," Dr. Jennifer Temel, the author of the paper, told the New York Times. "We thought it made sense to start them at the time of diagnosis. And we were thrilled to see such a huge impact. It shows that palliative care and cancer care aren't mutually exclusive." 

Despite the author's elation, she did mention that the study was limited by the fact that it took place at one single site with specialized groups of doctors treating the patients. Also, patients who were assigned to receive only standard care but requested palliative care were not denied such consultations. 

To learn more:
- here's the study
- read the editorial accompanying the study
- check out the New York Times piece