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What is palliative care?

Palliative care is *person-centred care that helps people with a progressive, life-limiting illness to live as comfortably as possible. The main goal is to help you maintain your quality of life by dealing with 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 supports families and carers.

*Person-centred care is care that treats you in the way you’d like to be treated and listens to your needs, preferences and values, as well as the needs of your family and carers. It means that your health care provider will involve you in planning your treatment and ongoing care.

Who providers care?

A palliative approach to care may be delivered by doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, volunteers and carers. Together these people make up your  palliative care team. Your care may be coordinated by one member of the team who communicates with you.

People with more complex and ongoing needs may see a specialist palliative care service. This service is provided by a team with extra training and it can also provide advice to other health 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 where you live, you can have palliative care at home, in a community setting such as a residential aged care facility, in a hospital or a specialist palliative care unit.

What care is available?

Palliative care offers a range of care and support options that can be tailored to meet your individual needs in five areas.

Physical needs – This may include: relief of symptoms such as pain, breathlessness and nausea; help with medicines; help with movement; suggesting changes around the house to make things easier and safer; and referrals to services to give your carer a break for a short period of time (respite care).

Emotional needs – This may include support for families and carers to: talk about the changes advanced cancer brings and other sensitive issues; plan for the future about what type of care you may need and where you would prefer to receive care; work through feelings and referral to counselling; and help you cope with loss or grief.

Cultural needs – This can include ensuring care is culturally sensitive and appropriate.

Social needs – This can: help you achieve your goals, such as how to get the most out of each day; assist with day-to-day needs; provide advice on financial issues; and help identify or set up a support network.

Spiritual needs – This involves support for your spiritual concerns, such as finding meaning, purpose and value in life.

How palliative care works

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

Person-centred care – The palliative care team will work in partnership with you to assess what you need and make suggestions about treatment and ongoing care. Your care goals may change over time.

Where care is provided – The health professionals in the palliative care team will work with you and your carers to help plan 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).

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

Who provides care – Your palliative care team is made up of people with different skills to help you with a range of issues. Your care may be led by your general practitioner (GP), nurse practitioner or community nurse, or if your care needs are complex, by a specialist palliative care team.

Support services – The palliative care team will help you work out how to live in the most fulfilling 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.

Family and carers – With your agreement, the palliative care team will involve your family and carers in decisions about care. They will also provide them with emotional support and referrals to counselling, grief support, respite, and financial assistance.

Symptom relief –  Palliative treatment can help you manage symptoms related to the cancer or its treatment, such as pain, appetite loss, shortness of breath or fatigue.

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

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

Featured resource

Understanding Palliative Care

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed August 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Cynthia Parr, Specialist in Palliative Care, HammondCare and Macquarie University Hospital, NSW; Dr Lisa Cuddeford, Clinical Lead, WA Paediatric Palliative Care Service, WA; Dr Laura Kirsten, Principal Clinical Psychologist, Nepean Cancer Care Centre, NSW; Penny Neller, Project Coordinator, National Palliative Care Projects, Australian Centre for Health Law Research, Queensland University of Technology, QLD; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Peter Poon, Director, Supportive and Palliative Care, Monash Health, and Adjunct Associate Professor, Monash University, VIC; Dr Kathy Pope, Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Reed-Cox, Nurse Practitioner National Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia; Juliane Samara, Nurse Practitioner, Clare Holland House – Specialist Palliative Aged Care, Calvary Public Hospital, ACT; Annabelle Solomon, Consumer; Silvia Stickel, Consumer; Kaitlyn Thorne, Manager, PalAssist, Cancer Council Queensland; Kim Vu, Consumer; Rosie Whitford, Social Worker – Grief, Bereavement and Community Palliative Care, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW.