Light, Life, and Palliative Care

I didn't get cancer just in my colon, liver, and pelvis. I got cancer in my whole body -- my whole life. It spread to my feet; my face; my heart and my mind; my family and friends.

Today, as I sit in the cafeteria and await an appointment with my therapist in 5B, I'm thinking about the all-encompassing effects of cancer and feeling so grateful for the role of my Palliative Care team in my persistence and survival over the past two years. 

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I don't think that very many people know what palliative care is or how people use it. Some have never heard of it; others confuse it with hospice. Palliative care, as defined by www.getpalliativecare.org, is "specialized medical care for people with a serious illness. This type of care is focused on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family." 

My palliative care team at Dartmouth consists of several nurses, a friendly and attentive secretary, Doctor Wilson, and social worker Donna Soltura. Their role in my care is to uphold me in the face of the treatment that Dr. Ripple and his oncology team are taking me through. When my body, mind, or heart suffers from side effects of cancer, they step in to help me figure out what is going on and to come up with the best possible way forward. They help me with my extreme nausea, strategize with me to manage my chemo brain, and find options for painfully dry skin. Donna helps me do the paperwork that baffles and overwhelms me. Perhaps most importantly, they talk me through the beautiful mess of living and the frightening possibilities of dying. While not everyone who comes to palliative care is dying, they're not afraid to face it head-on with me and my caretakers. 

In past posts, I've described the way my community wraps around my family. I don't think I can adequately describe the deep comfort of knowing that same level of compassion and empathy each time I attend a medical appointment. I have a doctor who asks the exact right questions to get to the thing that is bothering me most or to help me problem-solve. I have a social worker who helps me to find my way to the heart of my (many, many) issues. 

Even when I'm faced with the hardest of the hard questions, they can help me think rationally about the next steps. They are flashlights shining onto the possible paths before me, helping me to see the pitfalls and benefits of each direction, drawing out of me where my priorities lie. Then they step back while I make the choices I'm going to make. 

On my darkest days, the guiding lights in Palliative Care are my lifeline. I can only hope that others who struggle with symptom management, anxiety, fear, or the tough decisions that come with navigating a serious illness also find their way to my friends in 5B. They are the very best people.

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