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The Role of Palliative Care For Oral Cancer

Palliative care can be extremely helpful for those undergoing treatment for oral cancer. With April being Oral Cancer Awareness Month, we thought it appropriate to shed some light on palliative care — a valuable service offered in Alameda County and elsewhere. In a nutshell, palliative is all about comfort, with the goal being to manage troubling symptoms to allow patients with serious illnesses like oral cancer have a higher quality of life.

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 53,000 Americans will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2020, and nearly 11,000 people will die of those cancers. These cancers are more than twice as common in men as they are in women, and they occur primarily in the tongue, the tonsils and oropharynx, and the gums, and floor of the mouth. Other affected areas can include the lips and minor salivary glands.

The Role of Palliative Care

Palliative care for oral cancer patients is designed to relieve symptoms such as pain, nausea, shortness of breath, constipation, itching, and many other symptoms so that patients can feel better and enjoy life. Patients undergoing palliative care typically suffer from advanced illness, such as cancer, chronic lung disease, heart failure, or neurological disease. Those with life-threatening illnesses may also receive curative treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation.

The National Cancer Institute says palliative care is an approach that addresses the person as a whole, rather than just their disease. The goal is, as early as possible, to treat or prevent any side effects and symptoms either of the disease or its treatment, on top of any related psychological, spiritual or social problems. It’s also known as supportive care, comfort care, and symptom management. People can receive palliative care in a hospital, outpatient clinic, long-term care facility, or at their homes.

Palliative care specialists are part of a larger multi-disciplinary team that includes doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dieticians, chaplains, psychologists, and social workers. This team often works alongside the patient’s oncology care team to manage their care and maintain the best possible quality of life. Such specialists also offer caregiver support, facilitate communication among health care team members, and assist with discussions that focus on goals of patient care.

Issues Addressed in Palliative Care

Every patient is different, and the physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment are also different for each patient. Palliative care addresses a wide range of issues and needs, such as:

  • Physical: Common physical symptoms include fatigue, pain, nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, shortness of breath, and insomnia.
  • Emotional: Palliative care specialists offer resources to help patients and families cope with the emotions associated with an oral cancer diagnosis as well as its treatment. Depression, fear, and anxiety are just a few of the concerns that are dealt with through palliative care.
  • Spiritual: Patients and families tend to look for meaning in their lives when faced with a cancer diagnosis. Some feel closer to their faith and spiritual beliefs, while others struggle to understand why this is all happening to them. Palliative care experts can help patients uncover and explore their values and beliefs so they can finally find a sense of peace or acceptance.
  • Caregiver needs: Family members are an integral part of cancer care. They have needs that have to be addressed just like the patient does. They can also feel overwhelmed by the extra duties and responsibilities put on their shoulders. As a result, many people find it difficult to care for their sick relative while juggling their many other obligations, such as household chores, work, and caring for small children. They may feel uncertain about how they can best help their loved one, possibly faced with inadequate social support, and a burden of emotions such as fear and worry over the future. This can all result in caregiver stress. Thus, palliative care specialists provide friends and families with the support they will need throughout the process.
  • Practical needs: Palliative care specialists also help with legal and financial worries, as well as insurance questions and employment concerns. It’s an important part of palliative care to discuss goals, advance directives, and communication pathways among the oncology team, palliative care team, family members, caregivers, and the patient.


Palliative care can be provided anywhere along the cancer care continuum, from initial diagnosis to end of life. When a patient begins to receive palliative care, they can still continue to receive oral cancer treatment. They may recover and go on to lead a fulfilling life. Or, they may transition into hospice and pass on from their disease. To further distinguish the differences between these two forms of care: palliative can be engaged at any point in the cancer care journey, whereas hospice care starts when curative treatment is no longer the goal and the sole focus transitions to quality of life before death.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

To learn more about our palliative care services for oral cancer patients and any other type of patient, contact us at 888-978-1306.