What is Palliative Care?

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2019

Cancer and its treatment can cause physical symptoms and side effects. They can also cause emotional, social, and financial effects. Treating these effects is called palliative care or supportive care.

Palliative care is an important part of care that is included along with treatments to slow, stop, or cure the cancer. Research shows that palliative care can improve the quality of your life and help you feel more satisfied with the treatment you receive. You may start palliative care soon after learning you have cancer and continue to receive this type of care through treatment and recovery. For example, cancer survivors who have ongoing or new symptoms or side effects after treatment is completed also may receive palliative care.

Learn more about the different types of palliative care.

Is palliative care the same as hospice care?

No, palliative care is not the same as hospice care. But hospice care is a type of palliative care. The goal of hospice care is to keep you as comfortable as possible when treatment is not expected to cure the cancer. Some types of health insurance, including Medicare, pay for hospice care if you are expected to live 6 months or less, though some people live longer.

The information below shows when you might receive palliative care and hospice care.

You might have palliative care when …

You might have hospice care when …

You are receiving cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, with the goal of slowing, stopping, or curing the cancer.

You have chosen to focus on treatments that promotes quality of life, instead of treating the cancer.

You just learned you have cancer, you are receiving treatment, or you have finished treatment but still have side effects or symptoms.

You are expected to have 6 months or less to live (some people live longer).

When and where to find palliative care

Your cancer doctor may be the first person to talk with you about palliative care. Depending on the type of care you need, you might see someone at the hospital, in a clinic, or even in your home. For example, you might meet with a social worker or chaplain at the hospital and go to a clinic for physical therapy.

Learn more about where you can receive palliative care.

Your palliative care team

Palliative care might start with your cancer care team. Tell them about any symptoms you have. Also talk with them about any life changes or problems, such as needing rides to the hospital or time off work. Your cancer care team can contact other palliative care professionals. These might include:

  • A social worker, who can help with everyday tasks and challenges such as finding rides or adjusting to a new diagnosis

  • A counselor, psychologist, or child life specialist, if the person with cancer is your child. These people can help with emotional or mental health needs and family problems.

  • A chaplain or other spiritual advisor. This person can help you with doubts, fears, and questions about life and illness. They can help you find support. You do not need to be religious to talk with a chaplain or spiritual advisor. Learn more about spiritual support.

You might also see a nutrition specialist, physical therapist, or other professionals to help with symptoms.

Paying for palliative care

Your health insurance may cover palliative care as part of your cancer treatment. For example, if you need to see a physical therapist for help with increasing physical activity during treatment, this is a part of your cancer care.

Medicare and Medicaid often pay for palliative care. Medicare is the U.S. government’s health insurance for older people. Medicaid is government health insurance for people who earn less than a certain amount.

Talk with your doctor or palliative care team about the cost of different treatments, whether and what your insurance will pay, and where to find help. A hospital social worker or financial counselor can help you find ways to pay for the care you need. Learn more about health insurance coverage and managing the cost of cancer care.

Talking about palliative care

An important part of palliative care is talking about your diagnosis, treatment, and needs. These conversations help everyone understand what you want and expect from your treatments and overall care. Palliative care works best when you, your family, and your health care team work together.

Here are some tips for talking with your health care team:

  • Ask the doctor to explain your diagnosis, treatment plan, and prognosis. Prognosis is the chance of recovery. These might change with time, so keep asking questions. You can take notes at your appointments or bring someone along to help you remember things.

  • Ask your health care team to explain anything you do not understand. This can be a medical word, a treatment, or something else.

  • Ask questions about your social, emotional, functional, and spiritual needs. Here is a list of questions to ask the doctor to help you get started.

  • Tell your health care team about any pain, discomfort, or other side effects. Do this even if you think they are not serious, or if you are afraid that the cancer is getting worse. Telling your doctor about your symptoms helps them find the best options for managing those symptoms more quickly. Today, there are many ways to relieve symptoms.

  • Write down any symptoms and side effects you have, including what happens, how often, the time of day when it happens, and how bad it is. Share your notes with your doctor or nurse. This tracking helps your health care team find the cause of the problem and treat it.

  • Talk with your doctor about the palliative care services that are available to you. You may also ask to see a doctor who specializes in palliative care.

Related Resources

Managing Physical Side Effects

Hospice Care

How Symptom Tracking Makes Cancer Care Better

More Information

American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Doctors


National Institutes of Health: What are Palliative Care and Hospice Care?

Stanford University: Palliative Care Always

ASCO answers: Palliative Care; Improving Quality of Life for People with Cancer and Their FamiliesDownload ASCO’s free booklet, Palliative Care, as a printable PDF in English (32 pages) or Spanish (36 pages). Order printed copies of the booklet in English from the ASCO Store.