Managing the various side effects -- including physical, emotional, social, and financial effects -- of cancer is called "palliative and supportive care." It is an important part of a person's overall cancer care. Palliative and supportive care can be given in addition to treatments to slow, stop, or cure the cancer.
You can receive palliative and supportive care at any age and for any type and stage of cancer, and it can be given at any time during cancer treatment. This includes soon after learning you have cancer. Research shows that palliative and supportive care can improve the quality of your life. It can also help you feel more satisfied with the cancer treatment you receive.
This article is an introduction to palliative and supportive care. Read other articles on this website to learn about the different types of palliative and supportive care and what to expect when receiving palliative and supportive care.
Is palliative and supportive care the same thing as hospice and end-of-life care?
No. Palliative and supportive care is often misunderstood. It can be confused for hospice and end-of-life care, but they are not the same thing.
The aim of palliative and supportive care is to improve the patient's quality of life and maintain independence by reducing symptoms, managing pain, and supporting patients and their families. It can be given at any time during cancer treatment, including right after cancer is diagnosed or after cancer treatment is completed.
Sometimes, doctors will describe a cancer treatment as either "curative" or "palliative." Curative cancer treatments are used to eliminate cancer. Palliative cancer treatments are used to control cancer by relieving symptoms and side effects for as long as possible. You can receive curative and palliative cancer treatments at the same time or you may only receive palliative cancer treatments if a cure is not possible. Cancers that are treated with palliative treatments can often be managed for a long time.
Hospice, or end-of-life care, is a special kind of care that is a part of palliative and supportive care. Hospice care is given to people who are expected to live 6 months or less. The goal of hospice care is to improve quality of life and provide comfort in the final stages of an illness, like cancer. Hospice care helps people approach the end of life with peace, respect, and dignity.
How can I get palliative and supportive care?
Palliative and supportive care should be a part of your cancer treatment plan as much as possible. It is important to let your health care team know what side effects or concerns you are experiencing. This type of care can include help with life changes or problems due to cancer, such as needing rides to the hospital, time off of work, financial help, or spiritual support.
Your cancer care team can help you find the right people to provide the palliative and supportive care that is right for you. This may be at your cancer clinic, the hospital, at home, or somewhere else. For example, you might go to physical therapy at a clinic or meet with a social worker online.
Who provides palliative and supportive care?
Often, the health care professional providing and coordinating palliative care is your oncologist, which is the doctor who is treating your cancer. Your doctor can connect you with different health care providers based on the type(s) of care and support you need. At some medical centers and clinics, there may also be a specific palliative care team that will work with you to manage your symptoms.
Your palliative care team may include:
Doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and oncology nurses.
A social worker to help with everyday tasks and challenges, such as finances or adjusting to having cancer.
A counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. These people can help with emotional, mental health, or family needs. This includes communication with loved ones, anxiety, distress, anger, or depression. If the patient is a child, a child life specialist may also be involved.
A chaplain or spiritual advisor who can help you talk about questions like "What is important to me now?" or "What if I die sooner than expected?" You do not need to be religious to get this type of care. Learn more about spiritual support when you have cancer.
You may also see a registered dietitian nutritionist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and/or other types health care professionals to help, depending on what specific symptoms or side effects you need help with.
Does insurance cover palliative and supportive care?
Your insurance may cover palliative and supportive care as part of your cancer treatment. For example, if you need to see a registered dietitian to help you eat well during treatment, that is part of cancer care and is often covered. However, it is important to check with your health insurance provider about your plan's specific coverage.
In the United States, Medicare and Medicaid often pay for palliative and supportive care. Medicare is the U.S. government's health insurance for adults age 65 and older and some people with disabilities. Medicaid is government health insurance for some people who earn less than a certain amount. (Learn more about these programs in a separate article on this website.)
Talk with your doctor or palliative care team about the cost of the recommended treatment. You can ask if insurance is likely to pay and what your options are for care. A hospital social worker or financial counselor can often help you find low-cost options or ways to pay. Check with your insurance company for details on what may be covered. Learn more about health insurance coverage and managing the cost of cancer care.
Talking to your health care team about palliative and supportive care
Talking openly with your health care team is an important part of palliative and supportive care. Here are some tips for starting this conversation:
Ask the doctor to explain your diagnosis, prognosis, the goal for your cancer care, and recommended treatment plan. Prognosis is the chance of recovery. These things might change over time, so feel free to ask questions at any time. It can be helpful to take notes at your appointments or bring someone along to do this.
Tell your health care team what is important to you, including your goals and wishes for your care. Knowing this information can help you make decisions about your cancer care, including your palliative and supportive care needs.
Ask your health care team to explain anything you do not understand. This can be a medical word, a treatment, likely next steps in your care, or something else.
Tell your health care team about any pain, discomfort, or other side effects of the cancer or its treatment. This helps them find the best options to address the problem more quickly. Today, there are many ways to prevent and relieve side effects.
Write down any symptoms and side effects as they occur. Include details like describing what you notice or feel, how often it occurs, when it happens, and how much it bothers you. Then, share these notes with the health care team so they can better understand the problem and how to help. Consider keeping track of your symptoms and side effects in a journal or on your phone, such as by using the Cancer.Net mobile app.
Questions to ask the health care team
Consider asking your health care team these questions about palliative and supportive care.
What are some common symptoms of this type of cancer?
Can we prevent or relieve these symptoms?
What are the common side effects of the cancer treatment(s) I will receive?
What can be done to prevent or relieve these side effects?
Who should I contact if I feel worse or notice a new side effect?
How can I get in touch with them during regular business hours? After hours?
What palliative and supportive care options are available at this clinic or hospital?
Where else can I get help with palliative and supportive care?
Who can I talk with about my financial concerns of my treatment?
Who can I talk with if I am feeling very stressed or having difficulty coping?
What types of emotional support or spiritual support are available for me?
Managing Physical Side Effects
How Symptom Tracking Makes Cancer Care Better
How to Cope with the Impact of Cancer on Your Mental Health
The 4 Corners of Palliative Care: The Role of Spiritual Support
Financial Toxicity: Another Hurdle in Cancer Treatment
American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Doctors
National Institutes of Health: What are Palliative Care and Hospice Care?