Many people are frightened when they hear the term palliative care. For many, it means that death is near—the doctors have given up trying to cure the disease. Although this is a commonly held belief, it's a misconception.

The confusion stems from the fact that the terms "hospice care," which is provided at the end of life and "palliative care" are often used interchangeably. While palliative care is an important part of hospice care, in reality, it can enhance your treatment plan at any stage—even if you’re still being treated on an outpatient basis and curing your disease is the goal. The problem is that palliative care, also known as "comfort care" or "supportive care," is so strongly associated with the end of life—by many patients and health care professionals—that it's typically initiated too late to have a meaningful effect on quality of life. Fortunately, efforts are underway to reverse that trend.

Palliative care is any form of treatment that focuses on:

  • Preventing and relieving suffering, but the intent of the care is not to cure the disease
  • Achieving the best possible quality of life
  • Providing psychological, social, spiritual and decision-making support

Palliative care is available for individuals with serious, life-threatening illnesses and their family members. It is not necessarily exclusive of life-prolonging treatment; rather, it can be integrated into a disease-fighting treatment plan.

Often, palliative care specialists work as part of a multidisciplinary team, which may include doctors, nurses, registered dieticians, pharmacists, social workers, psychologists and hospital chaplains. These team members work together to coordinate—and individualize—care to:

  • Reduce pain and discomfort. Serious illnesses (and their treatments) may cause pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, shortness of breath, pneumonia and insomnia. Many of these symptoms can be relieved with medication, nutritional therapy, physical therapy or deep breathing techniques. Chemotherapy, radiation or surgery can also be used as palliative measures to improve quality of life in people with cancer by shrinking a tumor, slowing its spread or removing it. Useful non-drug treatments may include acupuncture, relaxation techniques, biofeedback and massage therapy.
  • Address emotional concerns. Palliative care specialists can help you and your family members cope with depression, anxiety, fear and other difficult emotions that often accompany diagnosis and treatment for life-threatening illness. They may provide counseling, recommend support groups, hold family meetings or make referrals to mental health professionals.
  • Explore spiritual matters if desired. Serious illnesses can trigger questions of faith. A counselor with expertise in palliative care can help you explore your beliefs and values. He or she may also refer you to a hospital chaplain or faith-based organizations in the area.

Other aspects of palliative care include coordinating care across a range of settings (hospital, home, nursing home and hospice), as well as arranging help with finances, medical forms, legal documents and advance directives. Your team may also direct you toward local and national resources for assistance with issues such as transportation or housing.

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 14 Aug 2013

Last Modified: 14 Aug 2013