What does “palliative chemotherapy” mean in the modern era?

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A trans-Atlantic perspective

One of the biggest changes in cancer care over the last 40 years has been in how we communicate with patients in the last 30 years. It is now taken for granted that Doctors and other health care professionals should communicate as clearly and openly as possible with our patients.

An early example of a change in communication came in the 1980s when we started to be more open with patients in terms of what treatments like chemotherapy could, and could not, achieve. For example, once most adult cancers they had spread to other parts of the body (i.e. become metastatic) they could sometimes be controlled but not cured. That led to the use of the term “palliative chemotherapy” for such treatment and that use of words continues today.

Over the last 30 years, however, many other things have changed. Most adult metastatic cancers are still not curable, but many patients are living with their cancer (rather than dying from it) for much longer. When that’s the case, this “palliative chemotherapy” is often being given well before we start to discuss focussing on symptom control rather than treating the cancer.

In other words “palliative chemotherapy” is often being used in patients who are relatively well and not candidates for “palliative care”, so we have two different uses of the word “palliative”. We are keen to explore whether there may be different ways of labelling such treatment than as “palliative chemotherapy”, which better reflects modern cancer treatment and our patients’ needs.

Chris Twelves and Alfred Neugut palliative chemotherapy

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About Author

Pink Ribbon is the new global charity seeking to make breast cancer-related deaths are a thing of the past. It focuses on political lobbying and campaigning, and the showcase Pink Ribbon awards. Global MD Gerard Dugdill gd@pinkribbon.co

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