The introduction of palliative care shortly after a patient is diagnosed with cancer is associated with improved quality of life and fewer depression symptoms among family caregivers, a study that will be presented at the 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL, has shown.1

Patients with newly diagnosed advanced cancers who receive early palliative care that is integrated with oncology care report improved quality of life and mood. Although a telephone-based psycho-educational intervention decreases depression for family caregivers, it is unclear how early integrated outpatient palliative care models affect outcomes.

For the study, researchers enrolled 275 family caregivers to 350 newly diagnosed patients with incurable gastrointestinal and lung cancers. Patients were randomly assigned to receive early palliative care integrated with standard oncology care or standard oncology care alone. Family caregivers, defined a relative or friend identified by the patient as the primary caregiver, were evaluated at enrollment, 12 weeks, and 24 weeks using questionnaires for quality of life and mood.

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Results showed that at 12 weeks, caregivers of patients receiving early palliative care reported significantly lower depression symptoms compared with those who received standard oncology care alone. Caregivers of those patients also reported improved vitality and social functioning, whereas both domains were decreased among caregivers to patients who received standard care.

At 24 weeks, researchers found that caregivers of patients assigned to early palliative care continued to experience fewer depression symptoms, but there was no significant difference with respect to the other measures between the 2 groups.

Because caregivers did not receive any targeted interventions and were not required to attend palliative care appointments with patients, some of the observed benefits in quality of life and mood among caregivers may have been indirect effects of improvements in patient outcomes.

“This study suggests that early palliative care creates a powerful positive feedback loop in families facing cancer,” said lead study author Areej El-Jawahri, MD, Director of Bone Marrow Transplant Survivorship Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston, MA. “While patients receive a direct benefit from early palliative care, their caregivers experience a positive downstream effect, which may make it easier for them to care for their loved ones.”

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“Caregivers provide critical support for patients with cancer, but it can take a heavy toll. This study shows that early palliative care, although designed for and directed at patients, can also help ease the burden on their caregivers,” said ASCO President Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA, FASCO. “This insight contributes to the large and growing body of evidence supporting early palliative care for patients with advanced cancers.”                   


  1. Early palliative care provides important benefits for family caregivers of patients with cancer [news release]. Alexandria, VA: American Society of Clinical Oncology; May 18, 2016. Accessed May 18, 2016.