Are palliative care interventions effective in people coping with advanced cancer? A group of palliative care specialists in the United Kingdom sought to find out. They knew that the anxiety and depression that oncologists often associate with advanced disease can result from the serious issues these patients are dealing with, such as living with relentless pain, anticipating their approaching mortality, and leaving behind the people they love. According to the World Health Organization, the goal of palliative care should be to enhance quality of life while easing the pain cancer patients experience.1 Unfortunately, this cannot always be accomplished with medication and other conventional interventions. In fact, in a 2014 UK survey, palliative care specialists reported that they had difficulty managing their patients’ anxiety. 2 For these reasons, the British group decided to “explore other avenues that may improve well-being and symptoms in a palliative care population.” 1

Varied Interest in Palliative Modalities

Of course, traditional and complementary therapies are not exclusive of one another. For example, palliative care patients often find their pain reduced and their mood boosted by noncontact therapies such as music therapy while they undergo conventional treatments.1 The 21-country European Social Survey found that the popularity of complementary therapies varied by country. For example, only 10% of patients in Hungary received such treatment, whereas in Germany, almost 40% utilized complementary therapies. People who had health problems utilized complementary therapies 2 to 4 times more often than healthy people.3 The manual body-based therapies that involve the touch of a therapist — massage, aromatherapy, and reflexology — are the most popular, so the UK group decided to focus on those in their recent review. 

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Study participants were aged 18 years or older; at least half of them were in hospice, another palliative care situation, or undergoing treatment for advanced disease with palliative intent. Participants had also participated in discussions about how effective they found modalities such as aromatherapy, massage, or reflexology. 1 The UK group searched databases in The Cochrane Controlled Register of Trials using variations of the terms palliative, aromatherapy, reflexology, and massage.

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