People with late stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and their caregivers may benefit from palliative and respite care, respectively.

Palliative care focuses on helping the person living with NSCLC find some relief from their symptoms and improve their quality of life. It does not provide curative benefits.

Respite care aims to relieve those who provide support for loved ones living with NSCLC.

Both services can improve the physical and mental health of those dealing with cancer.

This article discusses palliative and respite care in more detail and explains how people living with NSCLC and those who support them can benefit from these services.

The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that palliative care has traditionally served to help improve the quality of life of people living with life threatening conditions, such as later stage NSCLC.

However, other organizations, such as the American Lung Association (ALA), argue that palliative care provides benefits during earlier stages of the disease, as well. They emphasize that it is not always the same as hospice or end-of-life care.

The ALA defines palliative care as “specialized medical care providing physical, emotional, and spiritual support for people living with chronic conditions or serious illness.” The organization recommends that people receive this type of care alongside their traditional treatment regimen.

Which people with NSCLC receive palliative care?

Anyone living with NSCLC may benefit from palliative care if they have symptoms that interfere with their quality of life. Some common symptoms of NSCLC include:

  • hoarseness
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • a cough that worsens or does not go away
  • loss of appetite
  • coughing up rust-colored phlegm or blood
  • generally feeling weak or tired
  • unintentional weight loss
  • frequent, recurring, or long lasting infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis
  • chest pain that worsens with coughing, laughing, or deep breathing

According to a 2019 study, palliative care can help increase life expectancy and improve quality of life. The researchers conclude that people should undergo palliative therapy alongside their traditional treatment regimen.

What services does palliative care include?

As with other NSCLC treatment options, palliative care will look different depending on an individual’s particular needs. Palliative care can include a variety of different support services, such as:

  • Social support: This may help a person who is finding it difficult to talk with friends and loved ones about how they are doing.
  • Support groups: These can help people connect with others who understand what they are experiencing.
  • Therapeutic support: Some people might rather talk one-on-one with a therapist about their feelings.
  • Spiritual support: For some individuals who have trouble coming to terms with their diagnosis, spiritual support may be beneficial.
  • Nutritional support: This support can help those with treatment side effects that make it difficult to eat. Examples include nausea and vomiting.
  • Relaxation techniques: A person may find that these techniques help them manage the stress that comes with an NSCLC diagnosis.
  • Logistical support: Examples of this support include providing a person with a ride to and from treatment.
  • Financial support: This may help those with concerns about cancer treatment-related expenses.
  • Medical support: Medications or procedures may help alleviate NSCLC symptoms and treatment side effects.

According to the American Cancer Society, doctors and care teams may recommend the following palliative care procedures to help alleviate symptoms such as shortness of breath and improve quality of life for people living with NSCLC:

  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT): This procedure helps open up the airways using a light sensitive medication and laser therapy.
  • Stents: A doctor may insert a stent into the lung to help with breathing.
  • Laser therapy: This therapy uses lasers on the end of a flexible tube to help open the airways.
  • Pleurodesis: Doctors use this procedure to help remove and prevent fluid buildup.
  • Thoracentesis: This procedure involves using a needle to remove fluid from the lungs.
  • Catheter insertion: A surgeon may insert a small tube into the lung with an opening outside of the body to allow fluid to drain out.
  • Pericardiocentesis: This procedure removes excess fluid from around the heart.
  • Pericardial window placement: In this surgical procedure, a surgeon will create an opening to allow fluid to drain from around the heart into the chest or abdomen.

Where to find palliative care

A person should talk with their healthcare team about accessing palliative care. A person’s doctor can provide a referral, which some insurance companies may require before they agree to cover services.

A person could also use this resource to search for palliative care based on their state, city, or zip code.

Paying for palliative care

Most private insurance companies and Medicare cover palliative care. A person should contact their insurance provider to ask any specific questions and find out exactly what and how much their plan will cover.

Insurance coverage can vary based on several factors, including:

  • a person’s medical condition
  • the location of services
  • the necessary or recommended type of care

If insurance is not enough to cover the costs, a person can talk with their care team, who may be able to provide additional resources to help pay for the cost of care.

Whereas palliative care focuses on treating the person living with cancer, respite care provides the person’s caregivers with temporary relief.

Caring for someone with late stage lung cancer is not an easy task. A person who provides support for someone living with NSCLC will need to deal with:

  • helping make care decisions
  • dealing with financial issues
  • handling sudden lifestyle changes
  • having uncertainty toward the future
  • experiencing other unexpected changes and stressors

The changes, stress, and mixed emotions that come with a diagnosis of late stage cancer will likely take their toll on not only the person living with NSCLC but also their primary support person or family. Feelings of confusion, doubt, anger, hopelessness, and fear can take an emotional, mental, and physical toll on caregivers.

Respite care arranges for someone else to provide the loved one with support so that the caregiver can take a break. This care can provide a few hours, days, or weeks of relief at a time. The break from responsibility allows the caregiver to rest, which may help reduce stress and improve mood.

Respite care can also help a caregiver avoid burnout.

Where to find services

A person can ask their loved one’s care team about available local respite services or check whether the facility offers any services through its programs.

A person can also use this tool to find respite care near them.

Costs of respite care

People who have private insurance may not have respite care coverage. However, Medicare does cover most of the cost of up to 5 days of respite care. The person with cancer will receive hospice care in a hospital or skilled nursing facility.

A person or family will need to pay out of pocket for any costs that Medicare or their private insurance plan does not cover. People interested in respite care should talk with the care team about any potential financial aid options that may be available to them.

Palliative and respite care provide important physical, emotional, and mental health benefits to people living with NSCLC and their caregivers.

Anyone experiencing symptoms associated with NSCLC or treatment side effects should consider palliative care to help get symptom relief. Respite services provide caregivers with a break to help reduce stress and improve emotional and mental well-being.