What is palliative care?
Palliative care is a kind of care for people who have a serious illness. It's different from care to cure your illness, called curative treatment. Palliative care provides an extra layer of support that can improve your quality of life—not just in your body, but also in your mind and spirit. Sometimes palliative care is combined with curative treatment.
The kind of care you get depends on what you need. Your goals guide your care. You can get both palliative care and care to treat your illness at the same time. You don't have to choose one or the other.
Palliative care can help you manage symptoms, pain, or side effects from treatment. It may help you and those close to you better understand your illness, talk more openly about your feelings, or decide what treatment you want or don't want. It can also help you communicate better with your doctors, nurses, family, and friends.
Some treatments can be curative or palliative. For example, radiation is often a curative treatment for cancer. But it can also be used to help control cancer pain. When it is used to control pain and not to get rid of cancer, it is called palliative radiation.
If curative treatment is no longer working, a palliative care provider can help you decide if you want to keep trying that treatment. When the time is right, your palliative care provider may talk to you about hospice care. This is care for people who are in their final weeks or months of life.
Who is involved in palliative care?
There are doctors and nurses who specialize in palliative care. But your own doctor may also give some of this care. And there are many other experts who may help you. These include social workers, counselors, occupational and physical therapists, and registered dietitians.
What questions might you ask a palliative care provider?
Palliative care works best with open communication. If you don't understand what is being said, ask questions until you do. You may want to write down your questions before your appointment or bring a family member or friend with you.
Important questions to ask include:
- What is my diagnosis?
- What are my treatment options?
- What are the side effects of these treatments?
- What do you think will happen if I choose not to treat my illness?
- How long do you think I have to live?
- How soon do I need to make a decision about which treatment to use (or not use)?
- How will my illness and care affect my family and friends?
How Palliative Care Can Help You
Good communication is a large part of palliative care. Your palliative care providers will encourage you to listen to your feelings and to talk about what is most important to you. They will also try to explain things in ways you can understand. Then they will work with your primary care doctor to make sure that your care is meeting your goals, such as managing symptoms or making plans for the future.
You might talk about many things during a palliative care visit, such as:
You get to decide how well your treatment is working and if you want to continue it. Maybe you really want to see your grandson graduate, so you decide to keep having treatment even though it makes you feel sick. Or maybe you prefer to stop or limit treatment because you would rather focus on the quality of your life rather than the length of your life.
- Pain and treatment side effects.
You may think you have to live with side effects or pain. But a palliative care doctor can often prescribe medicines to help. All types of treatment have pros and cons. But you can work with your doctor to find the right mix of medicines for you.
- Emotional and social challenges.
A palliative care team can help you and your family and friends talk about feelings and solve problems. Palliative care team members may talk to you about your feelings about living with a serious illness. They may help you work through stressful family situations. They might even be able to help you arrange transportation or find resources to help pay for medicines.
- Spiritual concerns.
Your palliative care team may include a spiritual adviser or chaplain. Spiritual advisers can help you with questions that don't have clear answers. It doesn't matter what your spirituality or religion is. Your beliefs will be honored and respected.
You may want to talk to a spiritual adviser about:
- The meaning of your life.
- Ways to find hope and to celebrate your life.
- Questions you may have such as "What have I accomplished?" "Why now?" "Why me?"
- Your ideas or beliefs about death.
- Your faith community.
- Your wishes or plans for your memorial or funeral.
- Goals and lifelong dreams.
Palliative care can help you live well. Even when the end of your life is near, you can still try to live as well as possible. Remember to do the things that you love. For example, if you love to garden, you may still be able to garden if you don't overdo it.
Talk with your palliative care provider about what you feel you still need to do in your life. If you have always wanted to take a dream vacation, he or she may be able to help you to feel well enough to travel. If you want to reunite with your long-lost sister, your palliative care provider may be able to help you know how to reach out to her.
- Hospice care.
When you, your family, or your doctors feel that you may have less than 6 months to live, you may want to think about hospice. This kind of care is given wherever you are, whether that is a nursing home, a hospital, or your own home.
- Advance directives.
You can fill out legal papers called advanced directives. These important papers tell your doctor about the kind of care you want at the end of your life. For example, you get to decide if you want doctors to use machines to keep your body alive when it can no longer do so by itself. And you can say how long you would be willing to live on these machines.
Is Palliative Care for You?
Palliative care is treatment to help you feel better in body, mind, and spirit while doctors also treat your illness. It can include care such as pain relief, counseling, and nutrition services. It can also include helping you and those close to you to:
- Understand your illness better.
- Talk more openly about your feelings.
- Decide what treatment you want or don't want.
- Communicate better with your doctors, nurses, and each other.
You can receive palliative care at any time during a serious illness. You don't have to be near death to get this care.
Hospice is a type of palliative care. But it's for people who are near the end of life. Its goal is to help you feel better and get the most out of the time you have left. But you no longer get treatment to try to cure your illness.
Current as of: June 16, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Shelly R. Garone MD, FACP - Palliative Medicine