What is Palliative Care?



September 21, 2020

Palliative care is a vague and often confusing term to describe a type of medical treatment. People often ask: Is it end-of-life care? Is it the same as hospice? What does palliative care mean?

What is Palliative Care?

Palliative care is a specialized form of medicine that aims to enhance the quality of life for people of all ages living with serious and chronic illnesses such as cancer. It encompasses the whole self, caring for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients and their families. Palliative care primarily provides relief from pain and other symptoms of illness such as fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, and loss of appetite. By providing relief for various symptoms, palliative care can help you not only carry on with your daily life, but also improve your ability to undergo or complete your medical treatments.

Palliative Care and Cancer

Palliative care has long been recognized as an important part of cancer care and treatment. Often, this type of care is provided along with curative treatment and may begin at the same time as your cancer diagnosis. Many people assume that palliative care replaces your standard treatment of cancer care, however palliative care does not require you to give up your regular doctors, treatments or hope for a cure.

Palliative care looks at how the cancer experience affects the person as a whole by helping to relieve symptoms, pain, and stress. It offers patients a set of holistic options and allows them and their caregivers to take part in planning their care. Palliative medicine includes early disease identification, comprehensive assessment and management of physical issues including pain and other distressing symptoms, spiritual distress, psychological distress, and social needs. It’s about making sure that the needs of you or your loved one are addressed.

Palliative Care Team

For cancer patients, it's important to remember that the effects of cancer and its treatment can vary from person to person. Because of this, the palliative care team is highly diverse. Palliative care is carried out by a multidisciplinary team that is committed to working together to provide patients and their families medical, social, emotional, and practical support. This team may include:

  • Palliative care physicians

  • Nurses

  • Social workers

  • Chaplains

  • Physical, occupational, and speech therapists

In addition to expert symptom management, the palliative care team focuses on (260) facilitating clear communication, helping both patients and their families determine goals of care.They can help you navigate through the healthcare process and assist in making healthcare choices that are right for you. 

They will also make sure that your treatment team knows and understands your goals. This gives you more control over your care and will improve your quality of life.

When to Seek Palliative Care

If you or a loved one is facing a cancer diagnosis or another serious illness, you may benefit from palliative care. Remember, you can receive palliative care at any point in your illness. Palliative care may be a great option for you if you believe that you would benefit from any of the points listed below:

  • Controlling physical symptoms and side effects

  • Managing emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis and treatment

  • Showing the family ways to coping with life and family changes

  • Understanding any spiritual concerns

  • Supporting needs of caregivers

  • Assisting with financial, work, and insurance issues

  • Helping fill out advance directives and other forms

  • Transitioning to hospice care if treatment stops working or if cancer worsens

If you are still unsure if palliative care is right for you, you can also look at this quick questionnaire to determine if palliative care is the best fit. If you answered yes to any of these questions, the next step is to find a palliative care program

Additionally, palliative care services can provide members of your family who also need help with emotional and spiritual support. Palliative care can educate them about your situation and support them as caregivers. Some palliative programs offer at home services such as meal preparation, assistance with shopping, and respite care to give caregivers time off.

Hospice vs Palliative Care?

Over time, if your doctor or members of the palliative care team believe that ongoing treatment is no longer benefiting, there are two possibilities; 

1) Palliative care could turn into hospice care; or 

2) The palliative care team would place greater emphasis on comfort care. 

But what is the difference between hospice and palliative care?

While both palliative care and hospice are meant to bring comfort and relief, they differ in some important ways. Both forms of care require an interdisciplinary approach, with a focus on relieving pain and managing physical and psychological symptoms, while improving quality of life. 

The main difference between palliative care and hospice is that palliative care should begin at the time of diagnosis, if possible, and can be offered at the same time as curative treatments. Hospice care however, is appropriate for those with a prognosis of six months or less and who are no longer continuing with curative treatments. 

Here is quick list of similarities and differences between hospice and palliative care:


In short, palliative care focuses on relieving pain and other troubling symptoms and meeting you or a loved one's emotional, spiritual, and practical needs. The primary goal of palliative medicine is to improve your quality of life - however you define that for yourself.