Types of Palliative and Supportive Care

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 11/2022

Cancer and cancer treatment often cause physical symptoms and side effects, as well as emotional, social, and financial effects. Relieving all of these side effects, symptoms, and other effects is an important part of cancer care. This is called "palliative and supportive care."

Palliative and supportive care works best when you start it as soon as you need it during the treatment process. People who receive palliative and supportive care along with treatment for the cancer often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and are more satisfied with treatment. You can receive palliative and supportive care at any age and for any type and stage of cancer.

This article describes the different types of palliative and supportive care that may be available to you and who on your health care team can help explore your options. Learn more about what palliative and supportive care is and what to expect when receiving palliative and supportive care in other articles on this same website.

How can palliative and supportive care help?

Palliative and supportive care varies widely. There are many different types of palliative and supportive care that you can receive. This type of care can include:

  • Medication to relieve symptoms and side effects

  • Other treatments, such as radiation therapy or surgery, to relieve symptoms and side effects

  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation

  • Nutritional changes

  • Spiritual and emotional support, including counseling and relaxation techniques

  • Support for family caregivers or children

Getting support for physical side effects when you have cancer

Physical side effects of cancer and its treatment depend on several factors, can range from mild to severe, and often vary from person to person. Factors include the type of cancer, its stage, the treatment given, and your general health. Physical side effects can include:

Palliative and supportive care for physical side effects might include anti-nausea medicines, physical therapy, help with nutrition, or other services. You might see a palliative care specialist, sleep specialist, pain specialist, registered dietitian nutritionist, physical therapist, and/or another professional to help with physical side effects.

Getting emotional support when you have cancer

Having cancer can bring strong emotions, such as sadness or anger. It can also make you feel very stressed, anxious, or depressed.

Palliative and supportive care options for mental health can include counseling, exercise, meditation, and possibly medication to help. A counselor, psychologist, or other mental health professional might suggest that you try activities that help you reduce stress and anxiety, such as yoga, creating art or music, joining a group of other cancer survivors, or volunteering for a cause you find meaningful.

To find help, talk with your health care team about you feel and ask how to find support services. Your emotional wellbeing is an important part of your overall health and wellbeing. Learn more about how to cope with emotions.

Getting social support when you have cancer

Social support means having people around you who care for you and help you with the challenges of cancer, its treatment, and daily life. This includes help from members of your cancer care team, including social workers.

Problems in the area of social support can vary. For example, you might find it hard to talk with your loved ones or caregivers about how you feel and what you are going through. You may feel socially isolated from others, or feel distant from your partner. Or you may need practical help with daily life, such as finding a ride to and from treatment or coping with the financial burden of cancer. A social worker can help you find resources and help for the specific challenge you are facing. They can also help you navigate difficult conversations with family and friends. Ways they can help include:

  • Help you plan a family meeting

  • Suggest ways to organize people who want to help

  • Help you find medical information, rides, or services

A social worker can also provide palliative and supportive care for your close family members, including family caregivers. For example, if a caregiver feels overwhelmed, the social worker can help them figure out what kind of help they need and work with them to identify solutions. Learn more about the role of social workers in cancer care.

Getting spiritual support when you have cancer

Having cancer can bring up many spiritual questions. You might struggle to understand why you got cancer. Or you might want a greater purpose after surviving cancer.

If you belong to a faith community such as a church, synagogue, mosque, or other group, consider talking with your spiritual leader or community members. A hospital chaplain can also provide spiritual support, whether you are religious or not. Chaplains work with people of all faiths and those who do not have a specific faith. Learn more about spiritual support during cancer.

Getting financial support when you have cancer

Cancer treatment can be expensive. This might be a cause of stress and anxiety for you and your family. In addition to treatment costs, you might find that you have other new expenses, such as paying for gas or other costs if you need to travel regularly for your care or needing more child care to attend appointments.

Talk with your health care team about any financial concerns. In particular, a social worker or financial counselor often provide palliative and supportive care in this area. This may include:

  • Helping you talk with your health care team about the costs of care

  • Explaining billing and insurance, or find someone who can do this

  • Helping you apply for medical leave or disability payments

  • Finding programs that provide free or low-cost medicines

Learn more about managing financial considerations during cancer.

Palliative and supportive care for children with cancer

Palliative and supportive care is available and very important for children with cancer and their families. Avoiding and relieving side effects of treatment is an major focus of your child's treatment plan, regardless of their age or the stage of the disease.

Talk with the health care team before your child starts cancer treatment. Ask about the possible side effects of each treatment, as well as the palliative and supportive care options. Tell the health care team if your child has a new side effect or a side effect worsens, so the team can treat them quickly.

And, ask what services are available to help your child cope with the different challenges cancer can bring. This may include meeting with a child life specialist. Many centers offer supportive services for members of the patient's family, too, such as access to family therapists or support groups for parents and/or siblings.

Palliative and supportive care for older adults with cancer

Palliative and supportive care can be especially important for adults age 65 and above who are diagnosed with cancer. Older adults can have more physical side effects, especially from chemotherapy. They may also not recover as quickly from surgery as in the past. Older adults are also more likely to have a coexisting medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes, that needs to be managed during their cancer care.

In addition, adults in this age range may be concerned about the following:

  • Will treatment affect my ability to live on my own?

  • Will treatment affect my memory?

  • How will cancer treatment affect my overall quality of life?

Learn more about concerns for adults age 65 and above, including tips and possible side effects of treatments.

Palliative and supportive care for loved ones

Palliative and supportive care is not only for the person with cancer. It can also include support for the patient's loved ones, including caregivers and children of people with cancer.

Loved ones often provide important physical, practical, and emotional support to the person with cancer. This is called caregiving. Caregivers can also experience stress, anxiety, depression, and frustration. Palliative and supportive care can help caregivers balance providing important care while also keeping themselves healthy. Taking care of your own health helps you be a good caregiver.

If you are a parent with cancer with young children, you may need extra support from others. This might include after-school care or help with making meals. This allows you more time to receive and recover from treatment. Learn more about parenting during cancer.

Your health care team or a social worker can help you find palliative and supportive care for caregivers and other family members.

Getting palliative and supportive care after treatment

People may continue to need palliative and supportive care after cancer treatment is complete and into long-term survivorship.

For instance, some physical side effects can last after treatment ends or new side effects can appear later. Doctors call these "late effects." Ask your doctor if your specific treatment is likely to cause any late effects. Learn more about the long-term and late effects of cancer treatment.

Palliative care specialists can help treat late effects of cancer. This is an important part of survivorship care. Cancer rehabilitation services may be recommended. Treatment for the late effects of cancer should be a part of your follow-up care plan. Learn more about creating a survivorship care plan with your doctor for your recovery after cancer treatment ends.

Related Resources

Coping with Cancer

Finding Social Support and Information

Taking Charge Of Your Care

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Palliative Care in Cancer

National Institute for Nursing Research: For Patients and Families

National Institutes of Health: What are Palliative Care and Hospice Care?