Death and dying questions

1. What's the difference between supportive care, palliative care and terminal care? Are they the same?


These 3 terms can be confusing. Each describes a way of caring for someone with cancer or another serious illness. All involve coordinated care by a team including specialist doctors, nurses, volunteers, social workers and pastoral care workers. The goal is to provide care and support so people with serious illness can live as fully and comfortably as possible.

Supportive care

Begins as soon as cancer is diagnosed or suspected. It continues through treatment and for as long as is necessary after treatment's over. Supportive care may involve

  • helping to control any side effects from treatment
  • making sure the person with cancer is involved in decisions about their treatment and care
  • looking after the person's physical, emotional and spiritual needs
  • providing information about the cancer and its treatment
  • making sure all family members are coping as well as they can
  • helping someone recover after treatment finishes

When a cure is unlikely, the type of care is more likely to be described as ‘palliative' than ‘supportive'. This doesn't necessarily mean the end is near. People with cancer can be in the palliative stage of their illness for months, sometimes years. Palliative treatments may include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy as well as pain relieving drugs or dietary help.

Palliative care

Combines medical, nursing, psychological, physical, social and spiritual care so that people with cancer may come to terms with what's happening to them

  • provides relief from pain and other distressing symptoms
  • regards dying as a natural event and doesn't prolong treatment when it's no longer beneficial
  • doesn't include deliberate ending of life
  • offers support for families and friends during a person's illness and in bereavement

For more information about palliative care, visit: Palliative Care Victoria.

Terminal care is similar to palliative care. It's used to describe caring for someone in the last few days, weeks or months of their life. The aim of care is to provide comfort and support to the person with cancer and those close to them. It doesn't usually involve active treatment.

If you'd like to discuss these terms further, call the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20 and speak with a cancer nurse.

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Updated: 17 Jan, 2012