Getting Started With Palliative Care

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2019

Treatment to reduce symptoms, improve your quality of life, and support you and your family is called palliative care or supportive care. It is an important part of cancer care. Palliative treatments vary widely and often include:

  • Medication

  • Nutritional changes

  • Relaxation techniques

  • Emotional and spiritual support

Studies show that adding palliative care to your cancer care earlier can improve your quality of life and help you live longer.

When can I have palliative care?

You may start palliative care as soon as you learn that you have cancer. You can receive it with any type or stage of cancer. If you have advanced cancer, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends that you consider palliative care within 8 weeks of your diagnosis. You may also have palliative care if you have finished cancer treatment and have symptoms or side effects related to your cancer or treatment.

I thought palliative care was for when there is no cure.

This is a common misunderstanding. You may have palliative care at any time, including with treatment to cure or control the cancer's growth. Starting palliative care early allows you to have the most benefit from this type of care.

Some people confuse palliative care with hospice care. But it is important to know that hospice care is a type of palliative care for people who are expected to live 6 months or less, although some people live longer.

Where to find palliative care

Palliative care can be provided by your cancer doctor or another specialist. For example, your cancer doctor can help you cope with your cancer symptoms and the side effects of treatment. Or your cancer doctor may ask you to see other team members. For example, you might see an advanced practice nurse, physical therapist, or dietitian. Children receiving palliative care may see a child life specialist.

You might also want to ask about seeing a palliative medicine specialist. This is a doctor who has extra training in symptom management and ways to improve quality of life for people with cancer. This specialist works with the rest of your health care team to relieve your symptoms and side effects. A palliative medicine specialist can also help you make sure your cancer treatment plan matches your personal goals and values.

Your cancer doctor's office may be the first place you receive palliative care. You can also have palliative care in the hospital, a cancer center, medical clinic, or your home.

Does insurance cover palliative care?

Individual insurance plans, Medicare, and Medicaid often cover palliative care. Exact services that are covered might depend on your plan. Your doctor’s office might be able help you find more information. They might also ask your insurance company to authorize, or approve, a palliative treatment.

You can also talk to a hospital social worker, financial counselor, or someone at the insurance company about what costs are covered. Talk with your health care team if you are concerned about cost. They can help you find the right person to talk to about the cost of cancer care.

Questions to ask the health care team

It can be difficult to know what questions to ask, especially if you have not had palliative care before. You might want to write down your questions as they come to mind.

For example, are you worried about paying for any treatment that your insurance will not cover? You might be concerned about missing too much work, or you might struggle with nausea after chemotherapy. Palliative care can help with all of these concerns. Tell your health care team and ask about the help that is available.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • What is my diagnosis? What type of cancer do I have, how serious is it, and what treatment do you recommend?

  • What symptoms does this cancer cause? What side effects could I have from treatment?

  • How could palliative care help?

  • What types of support and help are available for me?

  • Does your clinic have specialists in palliative care?

  • Will my insurance cover the cost of palliative care?

  • Who could help me with mental, emotional, and financial concerns? What about practical issues like finding help at home or rides to treatment?

  • Can I receive palliative care at home, or close to home?

Related Resources

Types of Palliative Care

Do You Know Everything You Can About Palliative Care?

More Information

Center to Advance Palliative Care

Get Palliative Care: Talk to Your Doctor

National Institutes of Health: Palliative Care Conversations Matter

ASCO answers: Palliative Care; Improving Quality of Life for People with Cancer and Their FamiliesDownload ASCO’s free booklet, Palliative Care, as a printable PDF in English (32 pages) or Spanish (36 pages). Order printed copies of the booklet in English from the ASCO University Bookstore.