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Why Supportive Care Is Critical to Cancer Care

USNews
August 10, 2022
Kerry McMillen

Why Supportive Care Is Critical to Cancer Care
This whole-person approach to care is a powerful tool for patients dealing with pain or cancer treatment side effects anywhere along the cancer continuum.

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, it's important to consider certain aspects of your care that go beyond finding the right treatment. Cancer and its treatment can cause physical symptoms and side effects and can lead to negative emotional, physical and social impacts.


Supportive care disciplines can help minimize these symptoms and the stresses of battling the illness. These specially designed services allow patients to feel their best during and after treatment, improving their quality of life and potentially leading to better outcomes.


Why Supportive Care Matters

This whole-person approach to care is a powerful tool for patients dealing with pain or treatment side effects anywhere along the cancer continuum, from managing the initial side effects like chemo-induced nausea to metastatic patients learning to live with headaches, neuropathy and constant bone pain from ongoing therapy.


Research shows supportive care can do much more. It can cut back on emergency room visits, help maintain strength and function, curb anxiety and depression, improve the ability to cope with disease for both patients and caregivers and even help those in treatment to live longer.


Types of Supportive Care Services

There are many types of supportive care services:

  • Fertility. Depending on an individual's treatment plan, fertility may be affected. Onco-reproduction services help patients facing infertility and other reproductive challenges evaluate fertility preservation options as well as other available reproductive health services.

  • Integrative medicine. Integrative oncology, also known as integrative medicine, is an evidence-based field of cancer care that uses mind-body practices, natural products and lifestyle modifications alongside conventional cancer treatments to improve a patient’s mind, body and spirit. Therapies include massage, reflexology, music therapy and acupuncture among others. Integrative medicine works in tandem with conventional medicine and standard treatment methods such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to help you feel your best.

  • Mental health. Psychiatry and psychology services help patients through the emotional and mental challenges that come during and after cancer treatment. These highly trained clinicians can help patients manage the stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, substance abuse and other mental challenges that come with cancer. Every patient’s experience is different and requires a unique and tailored approach. Mental health support often is available to patients throughout each phase of their cancer journey.

  • Nutrition. Proper nutrition is vital for people with cancer and directly supports their treatment and recovery. Dietitians help manage treatment-related symptoms, help patients build and follow a personalized nutrition plan and proactively help patients maintain strength and healthy body tissue, both during treatment and afterward.

  • Physical therapy. Exercise and physical therapy has been shown to improve quality of life for cancer patients and is highly encouraged by cancer experts across the nation. Cancer treatments have unique side effects, some of which may lead to physical impairments that make normal daily activities difficult. Many physical therapists have advanced training in oncology care and will skillfully evaluate and treat your condition and provide you with tools to continue managing symptoms. Specially trained physical therapists can lead patients through beneficial exercises and other therapies to alleviate these symptoms during treatment.

  • Spiritual health. Coping with illness is difficult and can cause spiritual distress. Spiritual health staff provide emotional and spiritual care to people of all faiths and spiritualities including those who identify as nonreligious or nonspiritual. Whether its companionship, the need for an empathetic listener or a provider of religious rituals, spiritual health staff are there to support you whenever you need it.

  • Social work. Social workers are highly trained to help patients and their families navigate the psychosocial issues that may arise with cancer care. They can assist patients with care planning, advocacy, counseling, support during family conferences, education and co-facilitation of different support groups for both patients and families.

Supportive Care and Your Treatment Plan

The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends that supportive care be integrated into standard care for patients with advanced cancer or significant symptoms at the time of their cancer diagnosis. Supportive care is often available to anyone with cancer regardless of the stage of their disease, the amount of time since their diagnosis or the type of treatment they are receiving for their cancer.


Supportive care specialists tailor their approach based on an individual patient’s treatment plan. Depending on a patient’s unique needs, there are physical, occupational and massage therapists, dietitians, nurses, pain specialists, psychologists, social workers and chaplains who are part of the supportive care team and help patients with varied needs.


Supportive care providers are the experts who can help manage all manner of symptoms, quality of life issues and more. Their goal is to ensure that patients’ physical, psychological, and spiritual needs are met throughout their cancer journey and beyond.


Supportive Care After Treatment

A cancer diagnosis – and the journey that follows – extends beyond treatment.


Cancer can cause mental and physical changes that may make it more difficult for patients to take care of themselves, fully interact with family and friends or perform daily tasks they were used to doing. Everyone is different and it can take time to recover.

Supportive care does not stop when treatment is completed. It's there for patients throughout their cancer journey, for as long as they need it. Evidence-based supportive services incorporate the latest advancements and research to ensure patients get back to feeling their best as soon as possible.


Supportive care has grown to become an important component of modern oncology care and is a vital focus for patients. Anyone diagnosed with cancer should talk with their primary physician and oncologist about accessing supportive care.

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