What Is Palliative Care?

Older woman and palliative care nurse

Lucretia Hurley-Browning, MDiv, MS, Abramson Cancer Center chaplain at Pennsylvania Hospital, answers frequently asked questions about palliative care during cancer.

Palliative (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) care is specialized care for people and families facing serious illnesses like cancer. This type of care treats physical symptoms such as pain, nausea and fatigue. In addition, palliative care addresses emotional and spiritual symptoms common during cancer treatment. It also helps people and families better understand how the illness and treatment might impact their lives. 

There are often many decisions that need to be made during cancer care. Palliative care helps people make decisions that are in line with their wishes and goals. Finally, palliative care helps people and their families plan for the future by discussing ways to honor a person’s wishes throughout their treatment, toward the end of life and beyond.

Who can get palliative care?

Any person with a serious illness, such as cancer, can get palliative care. It is especially helpful for people and families experiencing some of the symptoms or concerns discussed above.

When is the right time to get palliative care?

Palliative care starts at any time during a person’s cancer care. The timing depends on the person and their needs. Some people find that they have many needs at the beginning of their care, while others find they have more needs later on. The palliative care team’s involvement increases or decreases as a person’s needs change.

Is palliative care the same as hospice care?

Palliative care supports a person and their family at any point during care for a serious illness. Hospice care is specialized care for people who are likely in the last six months of their lives and no longer can or want to receive treatment for their illness.

Who is on a palliative care team?

The members of a palliative care team may look different depending on the location and setting. A palliative care team may include:

  • Doctors and/or nurse practitioners who diagnose and treat problems
  • Nurses who carry out the treatment plan
  • Social workers who connect people to social services
  • Chaplains who support a person spiritually

Each individual member may have a slightly different area of expertise depending on their role and background. No matter who the team includes, the team's goal is to work together to come up with a plan to address the person and family’s needs.

Where is palliative care provided?

A person can receive palliative care in many different locations, including a hospital, a clinic or at home. Teams may look different based on the setting. For example, palliative care at home may include more nurses, while palliative care in the hospital may include more doctors.

Which palliative care services are offered at the Abramson Cancer Center?

The Palliative Care Clinic at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center will work closely with your treatment team to create a personalized care plan to help you feel your best during your cancer treatment. This plan will include:

  • Pain and symptom management
  • Emotional and social support
  • Assistance with understanding complicated medical choices and decisions
  • Coordination of care with other providers, such as pharmacy, physical therapy, home care and our dedicated palliative radiation program
  • Expert consultation during inpatient hospitalization

How do I get palliative care at the Abramson Cancer Center?

Talk to your oncologist or oncology nurse practitioner about palliative care. They can make a referral to our team.

For more questions or to see if palliative care is right for you or your loved one, call Marylou Osterman at 215-829-6466.

About This Blog

The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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