Palliative Care: The Basics

Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: April 21, 2016

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is a medical specialty focused on relieving pain and other symptoms, as well as helping patients and families navigate difficult medical decisions and manage stress. When life gets distressing, palliative care can provide an extra layer of support. Effective symptom management is necessary for many patients coping with serious illness, regardless of the diagnosis or stage of disease. The goal of palliative care is to improve quality of life for patients and their families.

Many hospitals in the United States have a palliative care program, either as a consultation service in the hospital or access to professionals in the outpatient area. A common misconception is that palliative care and hospice are the same. This is not true; palliative care is appropriate for any stage of disease, at any point in treatment and can be used even when the treatment is likely to cure the patient. 

Who are the providers on a palliative care team?

The palliative care team may include a physician, nurse and/or nurse practitioner, pharmacist, chaplain and social worker. Some teams may also include nutritionists, massage therapists or other complementary medicine practitioners. These practitioners work in conjunction with a patient’s oncology team or other medical professionals to provide an extra layer of support to patients and families.

What can a palliative care team offer me that my oncology team cannot?

The palliative care team provides extra support. They may provide their expertise in symptom and pain management. They may spend time discussing treatment goals and helping a patient and their family sort through difficult decisions. They may provide assistance in navigating a complex healthcare system. They may provide emotional and spiritual support for patients and families. The team can often provide more time and support than is possible in a busy oncology clinic. However, they are a part of your larger team and keep in close communication with your oncology team.

When is palliative care appropriate?

Palliative care is appropriate for any stage of disease and any point in the treatment continuum. Unlike hospice, palliative care can go hand-in-hand with active, curative treatment. Palliative care is not limited to patients with a cancer diagnosis and can be used by any patient diagnosed with a serious illness.

Not sure if palliative care is right for you? has a short quiz to help you determine if palliative care would be beneficial for you.

Want to learn more?

Visit to learn more about this specialized medical care and to find a practice near you.