Key Points

  • Palliative care is comfort care given to a patient who has a serious or life-threatening disease, such as cancer, from the time of diagnosis and throughout the course of illness. It is usually provided by a specialist who works with a team of other health care professionals, such as doctors, nurses, registered dieticians, pharmacists, and social workers.
  • Palliative care is different from hospice care. Although they share the same principles of comfort and support, palliative care begins at diagnosis and continues during cancer treatment and beyond.
  • Hospitals, cancer centers, and long-term care facilities provide palliative care. Patients may also receive it at home. Physicians and local hospitals can provide the names of palliative care or symptom management specialists.
  • Palliative care addresses the emotional, physical, practical, and spiritual issues of cancer. Family members may also receive palliative care.
  • Research shows that palliative care improves the quality of life of patients and family members, as well as the physical and emotional symptoms of cancer and its treatment.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is care given to improve the quality of life of patients who have a serious or life-threatening disease, such as cancer. The goal of palliative care is to prevent or treat, as early as possible, the symptoms and side effects of the disease and its treatment, in addition to the related psychological, social, and spiritual problems. The goal is not to cure. Palliative care is also called comfort care, supportive care, and symptom management.

When is palliative care used in cancer care?

Who gives palliative care?

Although any medical professional may provide palliative care by addressing the side effects and emotional issues of cancer, some have a particular focus on this type of care. A palliative care specialist is a health professional who specializes in treating the symptoms, side effects, and emotional problems experienced by patients. The goal is to maintain the best possible quality of life.

Often, palliative care specialists work as part of a multidisciplinary team to coordinate care. This palliative care team may consist of doctors, nurses, registered dieticians, pharmacists, and social workers. Many teams include psychologists or a hospital chaplain as well. Palliative care specialists may also make recommendations to primary care physicians about the management of pain and other symptoms. People do not give up their primary care physician to receive palliative care.

If a person accepts palliative care, does it mean he or she won’t get cancer treatment?

No. Palliative care is given in addition to cancer treatment. However, when a patient reaches a point at which treatment to destroy the cancer is no longer warranted, palliative care becomes the total focus of care. It will continue to be given to alleviate the symptoms and emotional issues of cancer. Palliative care providers can help ease the transition to end-of-life care.