Family caregivers have an important role in the welfare of cancer patients, but the burden of responsibilities associated with the disease can also negatively affect the former's health.

Now, new research suggests that caregivers of cancer patients can also benefit when palliative care is initiated soon after the cancer diagnosis.

The new study, which was led by Dr. Areej El-Jawahri, was a randomized trial that involved family caregivers of patients who were newly diagnosed with incurable gastrointestinal and lung cancers. Patients identified a friend or family member as the primary caregiver.

Although previous studies have revealed how early palliative care helps patients, this new study is the first to show benefits for caregivers of cancer patients.

El-Jawahri and her colleagues randomized 275 cancer patients to two groups. The first group received early initiation of palliative care and cancer care, while the second group received cancer care alone.

The research examined an intervention that focused on patients receiving visits every month with palliative care specialists. Caregivers did not attend the sessions but they were evaluated through the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS).

In the end, researchers found that caregivers had significantly better quality of life, better social functioning, and less symptoms of depression during the first three months of follow-up.

El-Jawahri, who presented the findings at a press briefing ahead of the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, said they can now affirm that the benefits of early palliative care extend beyond patient outcomes.

She said it appears the improvement in family caregivers were at least partially interceded by the patients feeling better.

The study's abstract has been published in the ASCO website. El-Jawahri and her colleagues will present results from the intervention that focused on patients in June.

El-Jawahri is an instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School and an oncologist that specializes in the care of patients with hematologic malignancies.

Previous studies have found that the stigma surrounding palliative care typically prevents patients from early access of the service. Researchers suggest re-branding the term "palliative care" services so it includes other services that can be used any time during the illness. The term's definition could also be adjusted so that it would be less confusing.

Photo : Zeev Barkan | Flickr

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