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What is Palliative Chemotherapy?


Updated October 02, 2012

Question: What is Palliative Chemotherapy?
Answer: Palliative chemotherapy is treatment given to relieve the symptoms of cancer, but not meant to cure cancer. A recent study suggested that most patients were not given clear information about survival gain with palliative therapy, so it is important to understand the goals of this type of treatment and questions to ask. Choosing whether or not to go through this type of treatment is a very personal decision that you should discuss carefully with your health care team and your loved ones.

The Goals of Palliative Chemotherapy Are To:

  • Relieve Symptoms – By reducing but not eliminating a tumor, palliative treatments may be used to improve symptoms caused by lung cancer. Examples of symptoms that might be treated this way include pain and shortness of breath.

  • Slow Progression of Cancer – Sometimes palliative chemotherapy can slow the growth of cancer and extend life, even though it does not cure the cancer.

  • Improve Quality of Life – By reducing symptoms such as shortness of breath, palliative treatments may improve well-being and quality of life.

Questions to Ask:

  • Should I expect that this chemotherapy will lengthen my survival?
  • What are the side effects I may experience from the chemotherapy vs the symptoms we are trying to relieve?
  • How long do people usually respond to this type of chemotherapy?
  • What will this chemotherapy mean for me? What is the cost? Will I have to travel for treatment?
  • How soon will I know if it is making a difference?
  • If I choose to take palliative chemotherapy, will that disqualify me from being in a hospice program?

Audrey, S. et al. What oncologists tell patients about survival benefits of palliative chemotherapy and implications for informed consent: qualitative study. British Medical Journal. 2008. 337:.752. doi: 10.1136/bmj:a752.

Harrington, S. and T. Smith. The role of chemotherapy at the end of life: “when is enough, enough?”. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2008. 299(22):2667-78.

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