What Is Palliative Care?

Palliative care is a special approach to caring for anyone with serious illness, such as cancer. Palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life by helping patients and caregivers manage the symptoms of a serious illness and side effects of treatment. It’s designed to work with the health care team to help people with a serious illness live as well as they can for as long as they can.

Palliative care is appropriate for people of any age and at any stage in any serious illness. Palliative care should be used whenever the person has symptoms that need to be controlled.

Palliative care and cancer

Palliative care is recommended as a standard part of care given to people with cancer. Palliative care does not treat the cancer itself, but can be provided at any time during the cancer experience. Often, palliative care is offered as soon as cancer is diagnosed, provided at the same time as cancer treatment, and continued after treatment is complete. One of its goals is to prevent or treat symptoms and side effects as early as possible. 

Palliative care looks at how the cancer experience is affecting the whole person by helping to relieve symptoms, pain, and stress. It gives patients options and allows them and their caregivers to take part in planning their care. It’s about making sure that all their care needs are addressed. The specialized professionals who are part of the palliative care team can help look for and manage mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual issues that may come up.

Palliative care may also be called supportive care, symptom management, or comfort care. And it's often a part of hospice care if cancer is no longer being treated because it has worsened. No matter what it’s called, palliative care has long been recognized as an important part of cancer care and treatment.

Palliative care and hospice care: similarities and differences

How they are alike

  • The goal of both palliative care and hospice care is to provide better quality of life and relief from symptoms and side effects for people with a serious illness.
  • Both have special care teams for a person's physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual needs.
  • Hospice care often includes palliative care.

How they are different

  • When care is given:
    • Palliative care can be offered and provided at any stage of a serious illness.
    • Hospice care is offered and provided for patients during their last phase of an incurable illness or near the end of life, such as for some people with advanced or metastatic cancer.
  • What other care can be given:
    • Palliative care can be provided while the patient is getting active treatment. In other words, it can be given at the same time as chemo, radiation, or immunotherapy for cancer.
    • Hospice care is provided when there is no active or curative treatment being given for the serious illness. "Treatment" during hospice care means only managing symptoms and side effects.
  • What the care team does:
    • A palliative care team is separate from the medical care team that's giving and managing treatment for the illness, but communicates with the medical care team.
    • A hospice care team coordinates the majority of care for a patient, and communicates with the patient's medical care team.

To learn more, read How and where is palliative care provided and how is it paid for?

To learn more, see How and where is hospice care provided and how is it paid for?

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Along with the American Cancer Society, other sources of information on palliative care include:

GetPalliativeCare.org
Website: www.getpalliativecare.org

    Has information on palliative care for patients and home caregivers, including a directory for palliative care providers.

     

    CaringInfo
    Website: www.caringinfo.org

    Has information on hospice and palliative care, caregiving, advance care planning, grief and loss.

     

    PalliativeDoctors
    Website: palliativedoctors.org

    Has a helpful list of resources for people living with serious illness and for their caregivers and loved ones

City of Hope Pain/Palliative Care Resource Center
Website: http://prc.coh.org

    Web-based clearinghouse of information and resources to help patients and families to improve the quality of pain management and palliative care

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Palliative care in oncology. Accessed at https://www.asco.org/practice-guidelines/cancer-care-initiatives/palliative-care-oncology on April 2, 2019.

Doyle C. Concurrent palliative care: Recommendations from the ASCO clinical practice guideline. 2017. Accessed at https://www.ascopost.com/issues/december-10-2017/concurrent-palliative-care-recommendations-from-the-asco-clinical-practice-guideline/ on April 2, 2019.

Ferrell BR, Temel JS, Temin S, Smith TJ. Integration of palliative care into standard oncology care: ASCO clinical practice guideline update summary. Journal of Oncology Practice. 2017; 13(2):119-121.

Krouse RS, Kamal AH. Interdisciplinary care for patients with advanced cancer. In DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019:2242-2247.

Marrelli TM. Hospice and Palliative Care Handbook. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International; 2018.

Nabati L, Abrahm JL. Caring for patients at the end of life. In Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:751-763.

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Palliative care in cancer. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/care-choices/palliative-care-fact-sheet on April 2, 2019.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Palliative care. Version 1.2019. Accessed at www.nccn.org on April 2, 2019.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute on Aging (NIA). What are palliative care and hospice care? Accessed at https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-are-palliative-care-and-hospice-care on April 2, 2019.

Sherman DW, Matzo M, Metheny T. The interprofessional practice of palliative care nursing. In ML Matzo, ed. Palliative Care Nursing. 4th ed. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company; 2014:3-20.

Last Medical Review: May 10, 2019 Last Revised: May 10, 2019

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