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The role of palliative care

Palliative care is person-centred care that helps people with a progressive, life-limiting illness to live as fully and comfortably as possible. The main goal is to help you maintain your quality of life by identifying and addressing your physical, emotional, cultural, social and spiritual needs. This type of care can help from the time of diagnosis, and can be given alongside other cancer treatments. Palliative care also offers support to families and carers.

Palliative care providers

Palliative care is an approach to care that may be delivered by any of your care providers, from doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, to volunteers and carers. Together these people make up your palliative care team.

Specialist palliative care services see people with more complex needs, and also provide advice to other health care professionals. These specialist services can be accessed through many public and private hospitals, palliative care units, and community-based palliative care providers. Not everyone needs specialist palliative care.

Depending on what services are available in your area, you and your family can choose where you want to receive palliative care. This may be at your home or residential aged care facility, in a hospital or specialist palliative care unit.

Services provided

Palliative care involves a range of services that will be tailored to your individual needs. Services may include:

  • relief of pain, breathlessness, nausea and other symptoms
  • help organising equipment for home (e.g. wheelchairs, special beds)
  • assistance for families and carers to talk about sensitive issues
  • links to other services such as home help and financial support
  • support for people to meet cultural obligations
  • counselling, grief and bereavement support
  • support for emotional, social and spiritual concerns
  • referrals to respite care services.

The palliative care team will work with you and your family to identify your care needs and care wishes, and may record these in a care plan. This plan will outline your care goals and how they will be met, as well as how any symptoms will be managed, and who to contact for help.

A care plan is not a fixed document – it should be reviewed regularly as your care needs change. It is important for your key family members or carers to be involved in any discussions about your care plan, especially if they are providing most of your day-to-day care. 

How palliative care works

Palliative care addresses the needs of people with a life-limiting illness in a holistic way. It provides individualised care to improve your quality of life and make the time you have as valuable as it can be for you and your family.

When to start – Palliative care is useful at all stages of advanced cancer and can be provided alongside active treatment for cancer. Starting palliative treatment from the time of diagnosis can help improve your quality of life.

Person with cancer – The palliative care team will work in partnership with you to assess your care needs and make decisions about treatment and ongoing care. Your care goals may change over time.

Care settings – The palliative care team will help you work out the best place for your care. This may be at home supported by community palliative care services, in hospital, at a residential aged care facility or in a palliative care unit (hospice).

Care providers – Your care may be led by your general practitioner (GP) or community nurse, or by specialist palliative care providers. They will be supported by a team of people with different skills to help you with a range of issues.

Family and carers – With your agreement, the palliative care team will involve your family and carers in decisions about care, and provide them with emotional support, including access to counselling and grief support.

Equipment – If you want to remain at home, team members can help identify equipment and services to help you with your daily activities and make it easier for carers to look after you.

Support services – Team members will help you work out how to live your days in the most satisfying way you can – this might mean enjoying time with family and friends, recording your memories or reflecting on your life. They can also refer you to organisations and services that can assist with financial, emotional and practical needs.

Advance care planning – The team will encourage and support you to think about, discuss and record your values, goals and preferences for future care and treatment.

Symptom relief – Palliative treatment can help you manage any symptoms, such as pain, shortness of breath or fatigue.

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed May 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Katherine Clark, Clinical Director, Palliative Care, Northern Sydney Local Health District Cancer & Palliative Care Network, and Conjoint Professor, Northern Clinical School, University of Sydney, NSW; Richard Austin, Social Worker, Specialist Palliative Care Service, TAS; Sondra Davoren, Manager, Treatment and Supportive Care, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; A/Prof Brian Le, Director of Palliative Care, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre – The Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Cathy McDonnell, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Concord Centre for Palliative Care, Concord Hospital, NSW; Natalie Munro, Team Leader, PalAssist, QLD; Penelope Murphy, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Kate Reed, Nurse Practitioner Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia; Merrilyn Sim, Consumer.