University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

It's About Living, Not Dying: Q&A With a Palliative Care Expert

By Anne Kavanaugh | | July 5, 2019

It's About Living, Not Dying: Q&A With a Palliative Care Expert

Steven Pantilat, MD, is the Kates-Burnard and Hellman Distinguished Professor of Palliative Care.

Steven Pantilat, MD ’89, is chief of UC San Francisco’s new Division of Palliative Medicine, an international expert in the field, and a lover of poetry that speaks to the heart. A line from a Mary Oliver poem inspires his work: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
What is palliative care?
It’s medical care focused on improving the quality of life for people with serious illnesses. If you’re facing heart failure, cancer, dementia, ALS, or another such disease, we can help you live as well as possible for as long as possible. Palliative care is not about dying but, rather, about living.
Are there any other misconceptions?
That you have to choose between quality or quantity of life. Palliative care helps you have both. Much of what we do is talk with people about what values and goals they hold most dear. People care about many things in addition to a cure. Patients hope to be at a child’s wedding, for example, or visit their hometown one more time. We help them achieve the things that matter most to them – even while they’re receiving chemo, surgery, or other treatments. It’s not either/or.
What does palliative care involve?
A team of expert nurses, social workers, chaplains, and doctors work together to address all the issues that really matter to patients. I tell my patients, “You have an oncologist to take care of your cancer. Our focus is on you as a whole person: to relieve your symptoms; to help you make good decisions; to support you and your family emotionally, psychologically, practically, and spiritually.”
How is UCSF advancing the field?
Last year, we started one of the first divisions of palliative medicine in the country. We’ve trained teams from over 250 institutions. We’re leading a national network of 124 palliative care teams nationwide. We now have data on over 200,000 patient encounters that will help us research and improve care. We’ve come a long way, yet there’s still much for us to learn.