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Palliative or Supportive Care

What is palliative care?

pal·li·a·tive (pal-ee-uh-tiv) = Relieving symptoms of a disease with treatments not intended to cure the disease itself.

Palliative care, also called supportive care, is aimed at relieving suffering and improving quality of life. It’s designed to help people live as well as they can for as long as they can, even though they have a serious illness.

Palliative care focuses on helping patients get relief from symptoms caused by serious illness – things like nausea, pain, fatigue, or shortness of breath. It is treatment given along with cancer treatment, even though it is better known for its role in promoting comfort when aggressive treatment is no longer working. Palliative care is treatment of symptoms – it is not expected to cure the cancer. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

Palliative or supportive care can be given throughout the cancer experience, whenever the person is having symptoms that need to be controlled. This can be from the time of diagnosis until the end of life. It’s appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness. It can be given along with curative treatment, and it can be given alone when cancer treatment is no longer working.

Palliative or supportive care is about giving patients options and having them take part in decisions about their care. It’s about assuring that all their care needs are addressed – their physical, emotional, spiritual, and social needs.

Benefits of palliative care

There are many studies that show the benefits of palliative care. Studies have shown that patients who had hospital-based palliative care visits spent less time in intensive care units and were less likely to be re-admitted to the hospital after they went home. Studies have also shown that people with chronic illnesses like cancer who get palliative care have less severe symptoms. They have better quality of life, less pain, less shortness of breath, less depression, and less nausea. Their families also feel more satisfied.

Palliative care may also increase survival. A 2010 study of lung cancer looked at patients who were given palliative care alongside cancer treatment. The patients who received palliative care along with cancer treatment lived nearly 3 months longer than the patients who received the cancer treatment without the palliative care.

Who should get palliative care and when?

Any person diagnosed with a serious illness who is having symptoms should have palliative care available to them. This supportive care should be available at the time of diagnosis and whenever it’s needed.

Who delivers palliative care?

Your oncologist (cancer doctor), your oncology nurse, and other members of your cancer care team may help you with symptoms you are having. For instance, they may prescribe medicines to help control or prevent nausea and vomiting or to help relieve your pain. Oxygen and other measures may be used to help with breathing problems. These treatments are palliative care.

Palliative care can also be given by a team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists who work with your oncologist to help with treating your symptoms. In this situation, your doctor might ask a palliative care team to see you.

This “palliative care team” typically includes a palliative care doctor, a palliative care nurse, social worker, patient navigator, and maybe a person with a spiritual role such as a pastoral counselor or chaplain. Many hospitals and oncology clinics have these teams as part of the services they provide. They can send the team to patients in intensive care units, emergency rooms, or hospital wards to talk with the patient and family and begin palliative care.

Even though the palliative care team may be based in a hospital or clinic, most of the actual care happens at home. Many hospitals and clinics have a team that they can refer people to when palliative care is needed.

At home, you may take medicines and use other methods prescribed by the team, or you may need help from family members and loved ones. The team provides education and support to the patient as well as to the home caregivers.

You can read more about being a home caregiver in our document called What it Takes To Be a Caregiver.

What the American Cancer Society is doing in the field of palliative care

Saving lives and preventing suffering for people facing cancer are central to the American Cancer Society’s mission. The Society collaborates with national partners to promote palliative care for seriously ill patients. Since 2007, the Society, through its partnership with the National Palliative Care Research Center, has invested more than $22.8 million in palliative care and symptom management research grants. These grants are designed to help improve the quality of life and quality of cancer care for patients, survivors, and their families.

The American Cancer Society’s advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), is also working to improve access to palliative care services for all people facing cancer and other serious illnesses. Learn more about ACS CAN’s Palliative Care activities at www.acscan.org/palliativecare.

To watch a video with more information about palliative care and the Society’s activities, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXh7TW3lyP4.

More detailed palliative care information from the American Cancer Society

Physical Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Emotional Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

Other sources of palliative care information

Website: www.getpalliativecare.org

    Has information on palliative care for patients and home caregivers, including where to find palliative care programs in your state

Center to Advance Palliative Care
Telephone: 212-201-2670
Website: www.capc.org

    Offers information for health care professionals interested in palliative care and setting up hospital-based and outpatient palliative care programs


Gomes B, Calanzani N, Curiale V, McCrone P, Higginson IJ. Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of home palliative care services for adults with advanced illness and their caregivers. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jun 6;6:CD007760.

Greer JA, Jackson VA, Meier DE, Temel JS. Early integration of palliative care services with standard oncology care for patients with advanced cancer. CA Cancer J Clin. 2013 Jul 15.

Temel JS, Greer JA, Muzikansky A, Gallagher ER, Admane S, et al. Early palliative care for patients with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med. 2010;363(8):733-742.

Smith T, Temin S, Alesi ER, et al. American Society of Clinical Oncology Provisional Clinical Opinion: The Integration of Palliative Care into Standard Oncology Care. J Clin Oncol. 2012;30(8):880-887.

Last Medical Review: 09/09/2013
Last Revised: 09/09/2013