What is palliative care?

Palliative care allows people with advanced cancer to maintain their quality of life in a way that is meaningful to them. It also provides support to families and carers.

The role of palliative care is to:

  • help you achieve the best quality of life that you can for as long as possible
  • make sure your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs are catered for
  • help you feel in control of your situation and make decisions about your treatment and ongoing care
  • make the time you have as valuable as can be for you and your family – not prolong or shorten life. 

Palliative care incorporates a range of services offered by medical, nursing and allied health professionals, as well as volunteers and carers. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT) approach.

You will have appointments with your health professionals so they can monitor you and adjust your treatment and care. This helps to prevent or resolve any issues that may arise because of the cancer.

Does it mean end-of-life care?

Palliative care is about living for as long as possible in the most satisfying way you can, within the limits of your illness. It’s not simply about dying.

While some people may only use palliative care services for a few weeks or months, the number of people receiving care for several years is increasing. Because improved treatments can help stop the spread of cancer and relieve side effects, cancer may be considered a chronic (long-lasting) disease. You can have palliative care while you are having active treatment.

One reason that some people don’t access palliative care services early – or at all – is because they have the fear or misconception that by doing so, it will mean they have given up hope or are going to die soon.

The reality is that some people do die from cancer. As people draw closer to death, the end-of-life care aspect of palliative care becomes important.

Does it prolong life unnecessarily?

Palliative care does not try to prolong life. Instead, the health care team provides multidisciplinary care to enhance people’s quality of life. This may include pain management.

Some studies show that controlling symptoms, such as pain, can lead to people feeling better and living longer.

Is it the same as euthanasia?

Palliative care and euthanasia are not the same thing. Euthanasia is when a person’s life is deliberately ended so that they avoid suffering from an incurable condition or illness. This is illegal in every state and territory in Australia.

Palliative care is about coordinating medical and support services so that someone with a life-limiting illness is made as comfortable as possible. Palliative care can help a person maintain quality of life, but it does not aim to lengthen or shorten life.

How can palliative care help?

The palliative care team is there to help make life easier for you, your family and carers. Besides the specific medical and support services that palliative care offers, which are discussed in this booklet, there are many general benefits:

  • If you’re home, the team helps to keep you out of hospital by regularly checking on you, either by phone or house visits. 
  • Your care is coordinated by someone, usually a community or palliative care nurse, who communicates with the team on your behalf. 
  • Communication with the palliative care team may help reduce feelings of isolation or not being able to cope, and it may help your family look after you.
  • Learning how to make adjustments around the house can reduce stress for both you and your family.
  • The team can help you plan for the future, such as the type of care you may need and where you will receive the care.
  • Many palliative care services offer a free 24-hour hotline to offer support and information after hours and on weekends.

Another aspect of palliative care is giving you and your family emotional support. Your team can talk to you about any needs or desires that you may have, and can help you achieve your goals. In some cases, this emotional support is particularly important for people who are are close to dying. Some people have specific end-of-life wishes; others seek to make the most out of each day. You might focus your energies on short-term plans, enjoying time with friends and family, and reflecting on the joys in your life.

As well as the general emotional support provided to you, a social worker or counsellor can help you and your family deal with loss and grief. Your family may be eligible for bereavement counselling. The palliative care team will direct you or your family members to bereavement information and resources.

This information was last reviewed in May 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Cynthia Parr, Staff Specialist, Palliative Medicine, Royal North Shore and Greenwich Hospitals, NSW; A/Prof Richard Chye, Director, Palliative Care, Sacred Heart Health Service, NSW; Fiona Harris, Social Worker, Department of Palliative Care, Calvary Mater Hospital, NSW; Julie Hill, Telephone Support Group Coordinator, Cancer Council NSW; Claire Maskell, National Communications Manager, Palliative Care Australia; Janet Phillips, Helpline Manager, Cancer Council VIC; and Prof. Patsy Yates, President, Palliative Care Australia and Acting Executive Director, Institute of Health and Biomedical Information, Queensland University of Technology.

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