In a study that sheds new light on the effects of end-of-life care, doctors have found that patients with terminal lung cancer who began receiving palliative care immediately upon diagnosis not only were happier, more mobile and in less pain as the end neared — but they also lived nearly three months longer.
The findings, published online Wednesday by The New England Journal of Medicine, confirmed what palliative care specialists had long suspected. The study also, experts said, cast doubt on the decision to strike end-of-life provisions from the health care overhaul passed last year.
In the three-year study, 151 patients with fast-growing lung cancer at Massachusetts General, one of the nation’s top hospitals, were randomly assigned to get either oncology treatment alone or oncology treatment with palliative care — pain relief and other measures intended to improve a patient’s quality of life. They were followed until the end of 2009, by which time about 70 percent were dead.
Those getting palliative care from the start, the authors said, reported less depression and happier lives as measured on scales for pain, nausea, mobility, worry and other problems. Moreover, even though substantially fewer of them opted for aggressive chemotherapy as their illnesses worsened and many more left orders that they not be resuscitated in a crisis, they typically lived almost three months longer than the group getting standard care, who lived a median of nine months.
Although the study could not determine why the patients lived longer, the authors and other experts had several theories: depression is known to shorten life, and patients whose pain is treated often sleep better, eat better and talk more with relatives. Also, hospitals are dangerous places for very sick people; they may get fatal blood infections, pneumonia or bedsores, or simply be overwhelmed by the powerful drugs and radiation attacking their cancer.