Types of Palliative Care

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

Cancer and its treatment often cause problems called side effects. While treating the cancer is important, so is relieving side effects and symptoms. In fact, treatment of cancer and its side effects often happen at the same time. This is called palliative care or supportive care.

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

Areas where palliative care can help

Palliative treatments vary widely and often include:

  • Medication

  • Nutritional changes

  • Relaxation techniques

  • Emotional and spiritual support

  • Support for children or family caregivers

This article explains the several different types of palliative care and how they can help.

Social

You might find it hard to talk with your loved ones or caregivers about how you feel or what you are going through. Or you might need a support group or a ride to and from treatment. A social worker can help with these situations. For example, they can:

  • 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 care for family members and caregivers. For example, if they feel overwhelmed, the social worker can help them figure out what kind of help they need and find it.

Emotional

Having cancer can make you feel many different emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, or anger. It can also make you very stressed. A support group, counselor, psychologist or other specialist can help you understand and cope with these emotions.

To find help, talk with your health care team about how you feel. You can also find ways to cope with emotions.

Spiritual

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, or other group, your spiritual leader or community members might be able to help support you spiritually. 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.

Mental

Cancer symptoms, treatments, and medications can all affect how your mind works. For example, if you are not sleeping enough, you might feel stressed and have a hard time thinking clearly. Or you might be very anxious about whether your treatment is working.

Palliative care for mental health includes exercise, counseling, meditation, and possibly medication to help with anxiety, depression, or sleep problems. A counselor, support group leader, or psychologist might suggest that you do activities that help you reduce stress and anxiety, such as yoga, creating art, joining a group of other cancer survivors, or volunteering for a cause you find meaningful.

Financial

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 extra expenses, such as the cost of traveling to a cancer center for care.

Talk with your health care team about any financial concerns. A social worker or financial counselor can provide palliative care for these concerns. For example, they might:

  • Help you talk with your health care team about the cost of care

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

  • Help you apply for medical leave or disability payments

  • Find programs that provide free or low-cost medicines

Learn more about managing financial considerations.

Physical

Physical side effects of cancer and its treatment depend on several factors. These include your type of cancer, its stage, the treatment, and your general health. Physical side effects can include:

  • Pain

  • Fatigue (being very tired)

  • Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite

  • Breathing problems, such as being short of breath

  • Sleep problems

Palliative care for physical side effects might include anti-nausea medicines, physical therapy, or help with nutrition. You might see a palliative care specialist, sleep specialist, pain specialist, or another professional for help with physical side effects.

Palliative care after cancer treatment

Sometimes, physical side effects can last after treatment ends. Doctors call these “late effects” if they happen or last for months or years after treatment.

Palliative care specialists can help treat late effects. This is an important part of survivorship care. Learn more about long-term side effects of cancer treatment. Ask your doctor if your treatment is likely to cause any late effects.

For children

As your child prepares to start cancer treatment, you might worry about treatment-related side effects. But palliative care is also available for children. It is an important part of your child’s treatment plan, regardless of his or her age or the stage of disease.

Talk with the health care team before your child starts cancer treatment. Ask about the possible side effects of treatment and palliative care options. Tell the health care team if your child has new side effects or changes in side effects so the team can treat them quickly.

For caregivers and children

Palliative care is not only for the person with cancer. It can also include support for caregivers and children of people with cancer.

Loved ones often provide important physical, practical, and emotional support to the person with cancer. Caregivers can also experience stress, anxiety, depression, and frustration. Palliative care can help caregivers balance providing care while also improving their quality of life.

If you are a parent with cancer, you may need extra support from others for your children. This might include after-school care or help with making their meals. Taking care of your own health helps you be a good caregiver.

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

For older adults

Palliative care can be especially important if you are 65 or older. Older adults can have more physical side effects, especially from chemotherapy. And your body might not recover as quickly from surgery as in the past. You may also 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 older than 65, including tips and possible side effects of treatments.

Related Resources

The 4 Corners of Palliative Care: The Role of Spiritual Support

Understanding the Costs Related to Cancer 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?

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.