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What Is Hospice Care, and How Does It Relate to Cancer Care?

There comes a time in the cycle of cancer care when families need to make a tough decision. Terminal cancer eventually advances beyond the controlling ability of current treatment protocols, and when the side effects of treatment are too harmful to continue, treatment must be stopped. Families should know, however, that service options to make a loved one's last days as comfortable as possible are available. These take a heavy caring load off of the family, as well.

You may be asking: "What is hospice?" Not everyone is certain about what hospice care offers patients. While it's difficult for patients and their families to make this choice, hospice allows them to move forward and focus on quality of life. The service provides patients with additional tools and services to help them focus on comfort.

What Is Hospice?

Hospice is a type of care that addresses the multiple needs of a patient and their family in the last days of the patient's life. The goal of hospice is comfort rather than cure; a hospice team works to improve quality of life for as much time as the patient has. There is a specialized focus on pain management and comfort, but hospice care also involves a mix of practical and emotional support services for patients and their loved ones.

How Does Hospice Help Families?

Hospice care may be delivered at home, in the hospital, or in a specialized facility. It includes a wide range of services, starting with a health care team to collaborate with the physician and ensure that patients' needs are met; medical needs center around comfort and are met by physicians and nurses.

Professionals outside the medical realm address nonmedical issues. Home health aides help with practical life needs and personal care (such as bathing), while dietitians focus on meal planning and preparation. Other individuals assist with housekeeping, errands, companionship, and simply providing families with some respite. Medical social workers and chaplains are also available to address emotional and social needs and help facilitate family meetings. They will convey patient wishes, make plans for them, and help keep family members in constant communication. Hospice care includes bereavement care, which aids families in dealing with grief after death.

When Is It Time to Start Thinking About Hospice?

It's a good practice to keep an open dialog with a loved one's medical team on hospice timing. Physicians may make referrals for hospice care when active treatment for cancer stops being effective, especially if it's estimated that there are six months or less left to live. Know that hospice is not a one-shot benefit: If patients live longer than the six-month period, physicians can repeatedly recertify them for additional periods, as long as the estimated survival time is less than six months at the time of each recertification. If a patient's condition improves to the point that hospice is no longer necessary, it's still possible to receive hospice care in the future if it's warranted.

Hospice helps ease the work that family members invest in caring for a loved one at the end of life. It's not uncommon for people to resist hospice because they think it means they're giving up, but this isn't the case. Instead, hospice care provides patients the tools and a support system for living their best lives possible during the time they have left, however long that is.

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