What is palliative care for cancer?

Find out more about palliative care and how it’s used to help people with cancer.  

  • Palliative care is often confused with end of life care 

  • It’s not just for people with a terminal diagnosis – the aim of palliative care is to relieve symptoms 

  • It can be used at any point during your care  

What does palliative mean?

Palliative is the name given to types of care and treatment that help you feel better. They aim to relieve your symptoms and improve your quality of life. 

Palliative care controls and relieves symptoms of cancer and the treatments you’ve had.   

Palliative treatment, which can include chemotherapy and radiotherapy, controls the disease, rather than cures it. It can also be used to control and relieve symptoms.  

Does palliative care mean you’re dying?

Not necessarily. Sometimes people think palliative care is only for people who have a terminal diagnosis, but that’s not the case. The palliative care team are experts in helping you manage your symptoms.   

Are palliative care and end of life care the same?

No, they’re not the same. End of life care supports people who are close to dying, whereas you might have palliative care for years as a way to control the symptoms and side effects that come with your illness and treatment, such as pain and nausea. 

What does palliative care mean for cancer patients?

People often think palliative care only refers to treatment you’re given after you’ve found out that your cancer can’t be cured. But palliative care doctors and nurses might be involved in your treatment right from the start – they’re experts in providing support with your symptoms, such as relieving pain, nausea and other symptoms associated with cancer treatment. 

Palliative care can make a big difference in helping you keep your symptoms under control, so that you can keep doing the things you want to do. 

Palliative care can involve lots of different types of medicine, like painkillers and anti-sickness medicines.  

Palliative care can also include other types of support which aren’t necessarily medical. The palliative care team work with the rest of your care team to help you and your family deal with the impact of cancer on your feelings and your life outside hospital. This might involve offering emotional and psychological support, or more practical support like helping with funeral planning, making a will, creating a bucket list or choosing where you would like to die. 

Palliative care teams can also offer support to friends and family members. If you think those close to you might find this useful, you can always speak to your care team and the palliative care team to find out what support they might be able to offer and how that might work practically. 

What are palliative chemotherapy and palliative radiotherapy?

As part of your treatment, you might also be given palliative chemotherapy or palliative radiotherapy. In these situations, chemo or radiotherapy is used to shrink your cancer or control its growth, and hopefully reduce the symptoms you’re having as well. You might hear this being called ‘palliative treatment’. 

Your doctors will talk to you about which palliative treatment options might work best for you, and will aim to choose treatments with as few side effects as possible. 

How do I get palliative care?

Your doctor or nurse will refer you for palliative care or palliative treatment if they think this would be helpful for you. If you have questions about if or when this might happen, you can ask your care team.  

When should someone be offered palliative care?

Palliative care can be given at any time during your treatment. It’s used to relieve the pain and symptoms of your diagnosis.  

Some people will have palliative care as part of their end of life care when they have a terminal diagnosis. In these cases, palliative care techniques are used to make people as comfortable as possible. 

Where does palliative care happen?

Depending on your situation, you can have palliative care in a number of different places. You might have it in hospital, at home or in a hospice. You can speak to your care team to understand more about what options are available to you and what they mean.  

If you’ve received a terminal diagnosis, it might be helpful to get to know your local community palliative care services as early as possible. This means you can build a relationship with them, and they can get to know you too and understand how you would like to be supported when you need them.  

Other useful terms:

You will hear lots of different medical words in appointments and conversations with your doctors and nurses. These can be really confusing and hard to understand. We’ve listed some of the common ones below. You can also take a look at our glossary for more common words. And remember you can always ask your care team if there’s anything you’re not sure about. 

Supportive care: You might hear this being used in the same way as ‘palliative care’ and it can sometimes be used to mean the same thing. If you’re not sure about what it means when you hear it, you can ask someone to explain it.  

Terminal cancer: If you have terminal cancer, it means that the cancer will get progressively worse and will shorten your life. You might hear this being called a ‘terminal diagnosis’. 

Incurable cancer: If you have incurable cancer, it means that your cancer can’t be cured, but you will be able to live with it, potentially for many years. You might also continue to have certain types of treatment during this time. This is sometimes also called ‘non-curative’.  

Grade: Grades describe how aggressive a cancer is. The lower the grade, the less likely the cancer is to have spread, the higher the grade the more likely the cancer is to have spread. The level of grade doesn’t relate to how likely it is that your cancer will be cured. Grading is used in a different way for brain tumours – you can find out more here

Stage: Stages describes the size of the cancer and how widespread the cancer is (in surrounding tissue and also across the body). 

Does Stage 4 cancer mean the same as terminal? No. Stage 4 describes the size and spread of the cancer. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have a terminal diagnosis.  

Hospice: Hospices are places that offer specialised care for people living with a terminal illness. There are some hospices specifically for teenagers and young adults. Others will be paediatric hospices which generally look after people up to the age of 16 or 18, or adult hospices which look after people over the age of 19.