How Palliative Care Can Smooth Your Cancer Journey

We’ve written a lot about palliative care in the past here on the Regency Blog. As an example, here is a detailed post about the difference between palliative care and hospice care.

As a quick recap, palliative care is an area of healthcare that focuses on relieving and preventing the suffering of patients. This is care given in conjunction with curative medical care, most commonly for cancer. The patient will see an oncologist or other doctor to treat and hopefully cure his cancer, and will also see a palliative care specialist to help manage pain and other unpleasant side effects from the disease and its treatment.

Hospice care, on the other hand, is a philosophy of care that focuses on relieving a terminally ill patient’s symptoms. On hospice care, the patient typically discontinues all curative care, and focuses on physical, emotional, and spiritual support during the last months and weeks of their life.

In short: Palliative care is an important part of the hospice program, but it is also a level of care on its own. Anybody suffering from any uncomfortable disease can benefit from palliative care.

How Does Palliative Care Help With Cancer?

A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming and frightening. Most of the time you need to act quickly against the cancer, and you’re plunged into a world of treatments, pain, and other uncomfortable symptoms.

Palliative care can help maximize your quality of life and peace of mind during the turbulent ride of cancer treatment. Your expert palliative care providers can offer effective pain relief, symptom management, improved communication, and emotional support while you navigate your cancer. The team also extends support to the patient’s loved ones who are also hurting.

The care team usually consists of a doctor or nurse practitioner, a social worker, and a spiritual care provider such as clergy.

Says Dr. Rebecca Burke, palliative care specialist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, “Palliative care is appropriate at any stage of a cancer diagnosis and can be provided along with curative treatment. The oncology team may refer patients to meet with the palliative care team due to worsening pain, uncontrolled symptoms, or for extra support when facing serious illness.”

Dr. Burke provides palliative care to outpatients at Rutgers Cancer Institute, as well as at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. Her team helps cancer patients manage pain, control nausea, deal with anxiety, and many other issues.

“A growing body of research shows that early consultation with the palliative care team leads to improved pain and symptom management,” Dr. Burke says. “Some studies have even shown improved survival when palliative care is provided early in the course of cancer care.”

Proton Therapy Gains Popularity in NJ

Doctors first used proton therapy to treat cancer in the 1950s, but it only started gaining popularity in the 1990s, when the first hospital-based proton therapy center opened.  What is this revolutionary cancer treatment, how is it different from traditional radiation, and is it appropriate for your loved one suffering from cancer?

How Radiation Therapy Works

According to, the website of the American Cancer Society, radiation treatment “uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy or damage cancer cells.” It works by breaking the DNA in cells, which makes it harder for them to multiply. Rapidly dividing cancer cells are particularly susceptible to this kind of damage, so tumors often shrink or disappear.

Radiation therapy is a localized treatment, unlike chemotherapy, which affects the whole body. The therapy aims radioactive waves at the specific area where the cancer is located. The goal is to limit the damage to the healthy cells in the body, but with traditional radiation therapy, the entire target area is at risk.

How Proton Therapy is Superior

The difference between traditional radiation and proton therapy is in how the radiation is delivered. Traditional therapy sends a  dose of radiation that affects all the tissue in the wave’s path. Proton therapy uses beams of protons—charged subatomic particles that can be controlled with magnets. It uses a small amount of radiation, and most of it goes directly into the tumor. None of it passes through the other side.

An example of how this works is that proton radiation aimed at a spinal tumor wouldn’t reach the heart or lungs, as it would with traditional radiation. Or if the tumor is one part of the brain, the other half would remain unaffected from the treatment.

In addition, because the radiation is more focused, and more of it reaches the tumor, you can use a smaller overall dose. This further limits the radiation damage to healthy cells. Another benefit of proton therapy is that patients must hold still for only seconds at a time, compared with minutes for traditional radiation. An entire treatment takes just a couple of minutes. As with other types of radiation, patients go for treatment once a day, five days a week, for five to eight weeks.

Who Benefits from Proton Therapy

Children with cancer benefit most from proton therapy. This is because more of their normal cells are developing rapidly, making them more prone to damage that could stunt the growth of healthy organs. People with tumors in the head, neck, and spine, and those who have cancers near other very sensitive organs, also benefit greatly. The precision of proton therapy protects their organs from radiation damage caused by traditional radiation.

On the other hand, people with certain cancers will not be candidates for proton therapy. Lymphoma, for example, often requires treatment in a wider area around the lymph nodes because of the way the cancer grows and spreads.  Many common cancers fall into a gray area. Patients and their doctors need to weigh the risks, costs and benefits of different types of treatments.

Because of the lack of extensive research, as well as the price, proton therapy is still considered an uncommon treatment for most cancers. There are only 28 therapy centers in operation in the entire country. However, patients who decide, with their doctor’s guidance, to embark on proton therapy are fortunate to have choices right here in New Jersey. Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center provides proton therapy at the Laurie Proton Therapy Center in their New Brunswick campus. In addition, ProCure Proton Therapy Center, located right near Regency Jewish Heritage in Somerset, opened in 2012 as an affiliate of the CentraState Healthcare System.

If you think you or your loved one can benefit from proton therapy, speak with your doctor today. The cure for your cancer could be just around the corner.