Lung cancer patients, palliative care — and the need for answers

November 2, 2012 | by Tami Dennis

When it comes to lung cancer treatment, some patients may be under the wrong impression.

Photo of City of Hope nurses From left, nurses Catherine Del Ferraro, Anna Cathy Williams and Gloria Juarez discuss a lung cancer patient’s plan of care. (Photo by Alicia Di Rado)

In a study presented Monday at the American Society for Radiation Oncology's annual meeting, researchers found that, among people newly diagnosed with stage IIIB (wet) or stage IV lung cancer, 78 percent were counting on radiation therapy to help them live longer. Further, 43 percent believed that their cancer was "very" or "somewhat" likely to be cured by such treatment.

In fact, as media reports of the study of 832 patients pointed out, radiotherapy is often considered palliative, not life-saving. City of Hope is working to prevent such misconceptions.

City of Hope health professionals and researchers are testing a program to influence how health professionals nationwide can communicate more effectively with lung cancer patients about palliative care. Ultimately, the results could benefit both patients and caregivers.

The “Palliative Care for Patients with Lung Cancer” project — funded by the National Cancer Institute — already has recruited 200 patients and 170 family caregivers at City of Hope. It specifically targets patients with early-stage lung cancer, patients with late-stage lung cancer and family caregivers of lung cancer patients.

Betty Ferrell, Ph.D., R.N., professor in the Division of Nursing Research and Education, is the project’s principal investigator; Tami Borneman, M.S.N., R.N., C.N.S., is project director.

As part of the study, a nurse meets with each patient every week for four weeks to talk about physical, psychological, social and spiritual issues. Together, they devise an action plan to help the patient face their challenges.

Family caregivers are crucial.

“We teach caregivers how best to care for their family member and manage their symptoms, and how to care for themselves as well,” Ferrell told a City of Hope writer.

Other health professionals from many disciplines also contribute, working together to create individual patient care plans that blend palliative care and other Department of Supportive Care Medicine services. “We know it’s a huge culture change, but if ever there was a group that needs us all working together, it’s lung cancer patients,” Ferrell said.

Researchers nationwide have given Ferrell and her colleagues a glimpse into the need for these programs. “People are hungry for resources across the country,” she said. “They’re already asking for our findings.”

The latest study proves just how necessary her results are.

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