Supportive care in cancer refers to the following five domains:

  • the physical domain, which includes a wide range of physical symptoms that may be acute, relatively short lived or ongoing, requiring continuing interventions or rehabilitation
  • the psychological domain, which includes a range of issues related to the patient’s mental health wellbeing and personal relationships
  • the social domain, which includes a range of social and practical issues that will affect the patient, carer and family such as the need for emotional support, maintaining social networks and financial concerns
  • the information domain, which includes access to information about cancer and its treatment, recovery and survivorship support services and the health system overall
  • the spiritual domain, which focuses on the patient’s changing sense of self and challenges to their underlying beliefs and existential concerns (Palliative Care Victoria 2019).

Fitch’s (2000) model of supportive care recognises the variety and level of intervention required at each critical point as well as the need to be specific to the individual patient. The model targets the type and level of intervention required to meet patients’ supportive care needs.

Fitch’s tiered approach to supportive care

Consider a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist, pastoral/spiritual care practitioner, social worker, specialist nurse or a relevant community-based program if the patient has these issues:

  • displaying emotional cues such as tearfulness, distress that requires specialist intervention, avoidance or withdrawal
  • being preoccupied with or dwelling on thoughts about cancer and death
  • displaying fears about the treatment process or the changed goals of their treatment
  • displaying excessive fears about cancer progression or recurrence
  • worrying about loss associated with their daily function, dependence on others and loss of dignity
  • becoming isolated from family and friends and withdrawing from company and activities that they previously enjoyed
  • feeling hopeless and helpless about the effect that cancer is having on their life and the disruption to their life plans
  • struggling to communicate with family and loved ones about the implications of their cancer diagnosis and treatment
  • experiencing changes in sexual intimacy, libido and function
  • struggling with the diagnosis of metastatic or advanced disease
  • having difficulties quitting smoking (refer to Quitline on 13 7848) or with other drug and alcohol use
  • having difficulties transitioning to palliative care.

Additional considerations that may arise for the multidisciplinary team include:

  • support for the carer – encourage referrals to psychosocial support from a social worker, psychologist or general practitioner
  • referral to an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist as a therapeutic approach to prevent and manage psychological health
  • referral to wellness-after-cancer programs to provide support, information and offer strategies.

Complementary therapies may be used together with conventional medical treatments to support and enhance quality of life and wellbeing. They do not aim to cure the patient’s cancer. Instead, they are used to help control symptoms such as pain and fatigue (Cancer Council Australia 2019).

The lead clinician or health professional involved in the patient’s care should discuss the patient’s use (or intended use) of complementary therapies not prescribed by the multidisciplinary team to assess safety and efficacy and to identify any potential toxicity or drug interactions.

The lead clinician should seek a comprehensive list of all complementary and alternative medicines being taken and explore the patient’s reason for using these therapies and the evidence base. A transparent and honest discussion that is free from judgement should be encouraged.

While some complementary therapies are supported by strong evidence, others are not. For such therapies, the lead clinician should discuss their potential benefits and use them alongside conventional therapies (NHMRC 2014).

If the patient expresses an interest in using complementary therapies, the lead clinician should consider referring patients to health providers within the multidisciplinary team who have expertise in the field of complementary and alternative therapies (e.g. a clinical pharmacist, dietitian or psychologist) to assist them to reach an informed decision. Costs of such approaches should be part of the discussion with the patient and considered in the context of evidence of benefit.

The lead clinician should assure patients who use complementary therapies that they can still access a multidisciplinary team review and encourage full disclosure about therapies being used.

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