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Palliative care

Palliative care aims to enhance quality of life and allow people to maintain their independence

Palliative care is care that helps people live their life as fully and as comfortably as possible when living with a life-limiting or terminal illness.

It is often given to people with advanced cancer but palliative care can be used at any stage when cancer is active.

What is palliative care?

The aim of palliative care is to enhance your quality of life and help you maintain your independence. It also provides support to families and carers.

The role of palliative care is to:

  • help you achieve the best quality of life
  • make sure your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs are met
  • help you make decisions about your treatment and ongoing care

When can palliative care help?

Palliative care can help anyone with cancer who is experiencing physical or emotional discomfort.

Palliative care can help reduce cancer symptoms, which may include pain, fatigue, nausea and constipation, and can reduce side effects from cancer treatments.

Some palliative treatments may be able to slow the growth or spread of cancer if it cannot be cured.

Palliative care can also help if you are experiencing depression or anxiety due to your cancer diagnosis. Counselling and support services can help address many fears, worries or conflicting emotions.

If you have advanced cancer, a social worker or counsellor can help you work out your goals and how best to achieve them. These goals may be specific end-of-life wishes, but can also simply involve making the most out of each day.

When can I start palliative care?

Palliative care can be started at any stage following a cancer diagnosis where the cancer is still active. Speak to your general practitioner, community nurse or cancer specialist about the palliative care services appropriate for you.

What does palliative care involve?

Palliative care involves health professionals from a range of disciplines caring for your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs. This occurs in a range of settings including the home, aged care facilities, hospitals and palliative care units.

Do I need to go to hospital for palliative care?

Most palliative care is provided in the community and may also involve visits to clinics at your local hospital or health service. Counselling can be given at home or at a local health service. Palliative treatment such as radiotherapy or surgery will be administered in a hospital or cancer centre.

If you are cared for at home, you can be supported by community palliative care services. Depending on your situation, it may not always be possible to stay at home. If this is the case, the palliative care team will talk to you and your carers about options for your ongoing care, which may include a hospital or palliative care unit.

Who are the palliative care team?

Your palliative care team will be made up of medical, nursing and allied health professionals working closely with your general practitioner or family doctor, who offer a range of services to assist you, your family and carers throughout your illness.

The team may include your general practitioner, nurse, palliative care specialist, cancer specialist, counsellor, social worker, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, pharmacist and dietitian. Family members and other personal carers may also form part of the team.

Support may include visiting patients in a hospice or hospital setting, or speaking with patients and their family members about the diagnosis and treatment.

You will have regular appointments with the health professionals in your team so they can monitor you and adjust your care. You won't necessarily see all the people listed; some roles overlap and assistance varies across Australia.

How long will I have palliative care for?

You and your palliative care team will determine how long you receive palliative care.

If you have advanced cancer you may be supported by palliative care services for months or years after your diagnosis. 

Whatever stage you're at, your team will continually assess your changing needs and adjust your care to suit.

Where can I find additional support?

Being referred for palliative care is of course likely to be distressing.

You may have a range of emotions. Many people feel shocked, fearful, sad or angry. Others may feel relief or have a sense of inner peace. It will probably help to talk about the different feelings you have. Your partner, family members and close friends can be a good source of support, or you might prefer to talk to a health professional or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

CarerHelp provides information and advice to the thousands of Australians who find themselves having to care for a partner, friend or relative affected by cancer and who is undergoing palliative care.

For many people, an illness in the family can also be a financial strain. You may be eligible for assistance from the government (federal, state or local), volunteer bodies, church and other non-government groups. Your local Cancer Council may be able to organise legal and financial advice on issues such as substitute decision-makers, will preparation, and early access to superannuation. Call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 for more details.

The Department of Human Services (Centrelink) offers special payments and provisions for people with a long-term illness and for their primary carers. For more information, call the department on 13 27 17 or visit


Understanding Palliative Care, Cancer Council Australia © 2019. Last medical review of this booklet: May 2019

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