Palliative care is a specialised form of supportive care for people who have cancer that has spread and cannot be cured. This may be referred to as stage 4 cancer, advanced cancer, metastatic cancer or terminal cancer.  You can receive palliative care at home, or in hospitals, hospices or specialist clinics. A team of clinicians works closely with you and your family to support your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. 

Aims of palliative care

Palliative care focuses on providing support and comfort, with the goal of improving quality of life by: 

  • helping to control physical symptoms such as pain or nausea 
  • supporting your emotional wellbeing and relationships with others 
  • supporting your spiritual needs. 

Who it can help

Many people think that palliative care is only for people who are dying or nearing the end of their life. In fact, any treatment for metastatic cancer that helps to relieve symptoms and improve day-to-day life can be considered palliative. While it might seem strange to think about asking for help when you are still relatively well, accepting resources offered by palliative care can help you to save your energy for the things that are important to you. 

Palliative care may be particularly helpful if you decide you no longer want to have active treatment to control your cancer.  

How it can help

A specialist palliative care service can help you and your family or carers in many ways. Services include: 

  • pain and symptom relief, through medication and information about drugs 
  • practical advice and support for you and your family or carers 
  • temporary respite care to give carers some ‘time out’ 
  • counselling and support groups for you and those close to you, to help address fears and provide support and comfort 
  • referral for spiritual support  
  • support to help you and your family prepare for end-of-life care 
  • grief support for families and carers. 

The care required depends on your individual needs. For example, some services cater specifically for younger people or those from different cultural groups. 

Accessing palliative care

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist palliative care service at any point after your diagnosis of advanced cancer. 

The most difficult first step is finding the words to start a conversation. The Cancer Australia resource, Finding the words – starting a conversation when your cancer has progressed can help you talk about how palliative care might help you to live as well as possible when cancer has spread. It also contains quotes and stories from people with cancer describing their experiences. 

Service locations

You can receive palliative care services at home or in hospitals, hospices or specialist palliative care units. The palliative care team works with the other clinicians involved in your care. 

See Palliative Care Australia for a directory of palliative care services in Australia, and a list of state and territory organisations that can give you more local information. 

Palliative care team

The palliative care team works with your multidisciplinary cancer treatment team. If you choose to receive palliative care, you will still receive care from your cancer team. 

Your palliative care team might include: 

  • a palliative care specialist 
  • a local general practitioner with skills in palliative care 
  • a palliative care nurse 
  • palliative care volunteers 
  • allied health professionals, such as a dietitian or occupational therapist 
  • social workers 
  • counsellors. 

Questions to ask

Questions for your doctor could include the following.  

  • Would palliative care be helpful for me and my family? 
  • Can you refer me to a palliative care service? 
  • What support can palliative care provide? 
  • What are my treatment options and choices? 

See the Cancer Australia resource, Finding the words – starting a conversation when your cancer has progressed for more examples of questions you may want to ask.  


For more support around palliative care, you can contact: 

  • Palliative Care Australia, which has sections for patients, carers, clinicians and service providers 
  • CareSearch, which consolidates online palliative care knowledge for people needing palliative care and their families, clinicians and the general community 
  • the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20

You may also like to view The Patient’s Perspective video. Dealing with concerns, vulnerability, and the complexities of health interventions can be overwhelming for patients and their families. The Patient’s Perspective video provides a unique patient perspective for the benefit of health professionals.