Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is specialized medical care given to relieve pain and distress in patients with serious illness like, but not limited to, cancer. It is characterized by meticulous symptom assessment and relief, open communication and medically appropriate, patient-driven goal setting. Palliative care is for everyone in need: the program serves children, the elderly and those in-between.

Palliative care is by nature multidisciplinary: it involves a variety of specialists working together to assess a patient’s needs, and then to address and relieve suffering in every manner possible. Symptoms of critical or chronic illness such as pain, shortness of breath, constipation, nausea, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, weight loss and fatigue are managed, enabling patients to feel better and gain the strength to carry on with daily life.

Palliative care uses a holistic approach, focusing on the entire person and not just the illness. The care team addresses any social, psychological, emotional or spiritual needs the patient has and provides support for family and caregivers.

Together, the patient, family and palliative care team create a care plan that takes into account personal values and treatment preferences to meet the individual needs of each patient. Care plans are reviewed each day by the palliative care team and discussed with the patient to ensure care is aligned with goals.

The difference between hospice and palliative care

Palliative care does not replace other treatments. It can be received simultaneously with any life-prolonging or curative therapy. Focused on improving the quality of life, palliative care is appropriate at any age and any stage in a serious illness.

The Center to Advance Palliative Care defines hospice as palliative care for terminally ill patients with a life expectancy of six months or less. Hospice carries a significant Medicare benefit because people who receive hospice are no longer receiving curative treatment for their underlying disease.