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When is palliative care appropriate for someone who has cancer?

Dr. Stewart B. Fleishman, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

Palliative care for cancer, which focuses on relieving symptoms of the disease rather than curing it, is not reserved for the last few weeks or days of life. In this video, palliative medicine specialist Dr. Stewart Fleishman discusses when palliative care is appropriate for someone with cancer.

Patients and families should consider partnering with a palliative care team at the initial diagnosis of cancer.

Palliative care may be appropriate and beneficial at any stage of the cancer journey including for those survivors who:

  • Are seeking or receiving cancer treatment
  • Recently completed treatment (may or may not be cancer-free)
  • Finished treatment years ago
  • Are experiencing cancer as a chronic (ongoing) illness
  • Currently are participating in clinical trials to evaluate treatments or quality of life issues (such as the effects of exercise on reducing fatigue)
  • Have had cancers that are likely to recur
  • Have advanced cancer and may be approaching the end of life

Some healthcare professionals may think of palliative care only as the care given to those nearing end of life. This is because, in the past, the term palliative care was focused on hospice care and improving the physical comfort of survivors nearing the end of life. It also included addressing the emotional and spiritual needs of the patient and his or her loved ones. While palliative care still includes hospice and end-of-life care, it now also includes care for people at all stages of life-altering illnesses.

What you call this type of care is not as important as getting the care you need. Your healthcare team may not use the term palliative care to describe post-treatment services. Other terms may be used to define this type of care such as whole-person care, comfort-oriented care or supportive care. 

Palliative care helps relieve pain and symptoms, but does not provide a cure. You may use palliative care at any point during your cancer journey. A person does not have to be terminal to receive palliative care. Palliative care can be combined with other forms of treatment. You may use palliative care to manage side effects from treatment. Some forms of palliative care may be covered by Medicare, Medicaid or other insurance plans. Often, costs for palliative care fall on the individual.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.