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Palliative care

Palliative treatment

Page last updated: January 2024

The information on this webpage has been adapted from Understanding Palliative Care - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in January 2024.

Expert content reviewers:

This information was developed with help from Palliative Care Australia and is based on the National Palliative Care Strategy 2018. We thank the reviewers of this booklet:

  • Prof Meera Agar, Palliative Care Physician, Professor of Palliative Medicine, University of Technology Sydney, IMPACCT, Sydney, NSW
  • Anne Booms, Nurse Practitioner, Palliative Care, Icon Cancer Centre Midlands, WA
  • Nicola Champion, Consumer
  • John Clements, Consumer
  • Dr Alexandra Clinch, Palliative Medicine Specialist and Deputy Director, Palliative Care, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC
  • A/Prof Jaklin Eliott, School of Public Health, University of Adelaide, SA
  • Dr Jemma Gilchrist, Clinical Psychologist, Mind My Health, NSW
  • McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC
  • Caitlin MacDonagh, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Palliative Care, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW
  • Dr Roya Merie, Radiation Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Concord, NSW
  • Dr Deidre Morgan, Research Centre for Palliative Care, Death and Dying, Flinders University, SA
  • Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA

Medical treatment is a key part of palliative care. It aims to manage the symptoms of cancer without trying to cure the disease.

The treatment you are offered will depend on your individual needs, what type of cancer you have, how far it has spread, your symptoms. any other health issues and the support you have.


Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. Some people with advanced cancer want to know whether and when they are likely to die, while others don’t. It’s a very personal decision.

Your doctor can't say exactly what will happen to you, but they can give you an idea based on what usually happens to someone in your situation.

As everyone responds to treatment differently, the actual time could be shorter or longer.

Sometimes, families and carers want to know the prognosis even when you don’t. You can ask the palliative care team to talk to your family or carer when you’re not there.

Talking about facing the end of life is difficult and confronting for most people and their families. Sharing any emotions you are experiencing may help you come to terms with your situation.

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Types of palliative cancer treatment


Surgery can be used to:

  • remove all or part of a tumour from affected areas, such as the bowel or lymph nodes
  • relieve discomfort caused by tumours blocking organs or pressing on nerves
  • reduce tumour size (debulking) to help improve outcomes from chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • insert a thin tube (stent) into a blocked organ to create a passage for substances to pass through.

Drug therapies 

Drugs can travel throughout the body. This is called systemic treatment. Drug therapies include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy. Some drug therapies:

  • can reduce a cancer that is causing pain because of its size or location
  • slow the growth of a cancer
  • help control symptoms, including pain and loss of appetite
  • reduce inflammation and relieve symptoms such as bone pain. 

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy can shrink tumours or stop them spreading further. It can also relieve some symptoms, such as pain from secondary cancers in the bones. Y

ou can have radiation therapy in different ways and doses. It can be given in single or multiple visits.


Making treatment decisions

You have the right to say no to any treatment recommended, but your medical team need to be confident that you understand what you’ve been offered, and how not having the treatment may affect you.

You can ask questions about treatments and what side effects or “trade-offs” these may have. It might be important for you to know about recovery times, length of hospital stay or physical benefits or risks.

Bring a family member or friend to appointments to help you make decisions and use a question checklist as a guide.

You do not have to accept treatments on an all-or-nothing basis – you can refuse some and accept others.

Treatments can cause significant side effects, and some people choose not to have active treatment for the cancer but to focus on controlling their symptoms to reduce pain and discomfort. 

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Managing symptoms

One of the main aims of having palliative treatment is the relief of symptoms. While it may not be possible to lesson all symptoms, there are ways you can manage symptoms and feel more comfortable.

It may take time to find the most effective treatment – let your palliative care team know if a treatment is not working, as they may be able to offer an alternative.

Your feelings and emotional needs

Many people feel shocked, fearful, sad, anxious, guilty or angry when referred to palliative care. Some people feel relief or a sense of inner peace.

It is quite common for people diagnosed with advanced cancer to have continued feelings of depression. Signs of depression include trouble thinking clearly, losing interest in things you used to enjoy, or changes to sleep patterns and appetite.

If you think you may be depressed, it is important to talk to your doctor, because counselling or medicines – even for a short time – can help.

For information about coping with depression and anxiety, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14.

You may find that while some friends and family members are supportive, others may avoid you or not know what to say. This can be difficult, and you could feel isolated or upset.

Advanced cancer can mean changes to your lifestyle – at some point, you may need to leave work, or perhaps stop driving or other activities that are important to you. These changes can cause further sadness or stress.

It will often help to talk to someone. Your partner, family and close friends may be able to offer support, or you might like to talk to:


Whether you have pain will depend on where the cancer is and its size. Pain is different for everyone, and even people with the same type of cancer can experience different levels of pain.

Palliative care services are specifically trained in pain management. If you do have pain, they will help you control the distress it is causing as much as possible.

Many people need a combination of treatments, such as pain medicines and complementary therapies, to achieve good pain control.

Some people worry about becoming addicted to pain medicine but this is unlikely when medicines are taken palliatively. Your health care team will monitor you to avoid and manage potential side effects.

Taking high-strength opioids (such as morphine) as prescribed will not shorten life – people may even live longer with better quality of life when their pain is treated effectively.

Talk to a specialist palliative care service if the dose you have been prescribed does not relieve your pain. 

Problems with eating and drinking

Many people with advanced cancer do not feel like eating or drinking. This may be because of the cancer or a side effect of treatment. Loss of appetite may also be caused by anxiety, fatigue or depression.

However, food and drinks help maintain your strength and bowel movements, which improves your quality of life.

Loss of appetite – you don’t need to force yourself to eat. This may make you feel uncomfortable, and cause vomiting and stomach pain.

Try having small meals, eating your favourite foods more frequently, and relaxing your usual dietary restrictions. It is common to feel less hungry as the disease progresses. 

Nausea – you may feel sick (nausea), have reflux or have trouble keeping food down. You will probably be given anti-nausea medicine that you can take regularly to relieve symptoms.

Finding the right one can take time – let your palliative care team know if the dose needs to be adjusted or another medicine can be tried.

Having an empty stomach can make your nausea worse – try to eat something soon after getting up in the morning and then eat small meals and snacks regularly throughout the day.

Try to drink water or other fluids, and consider eating foods with ginger, which can ease nausea.

Difficulty swallowing – if chewing and swallowing become difficult, you may need to change the consistency of your food by chopping, mincing or pureeing.

A speech pathologist can check how well you’re swallowing and advise the best food texture.

Bowel changes

Many people have difficulty passing bowel motions (constipation), often as a side effect of opioids, cancer treatments or other medicines, or because of changes to what they’re eating or how much they’re moving.

The usual suggestions for managing constipation, such as drinking lots of water, eating a high-fibre diet and exercising, may not be possible if you feel unwell.

Your treatment team will discuss other ways of managing constipation, such as laxatives and stool softeners.


Fatigue is when you feel very tired, weak, drained and worn out. Cancer-related fatigue is different from tiredness because it is more severe, not the result of recent physical or mental activity, and usually doesn’t get better with rest or sleep.

Fatigue can be caused by the cancer itself, cancer treatment, depression or anxiety, poor sleep, an infection, anaemia, weight loss or medicines.

Your palliative care team may be able to adjust your medicines or treat the cause of the fatigue. A physiotherapist, exercise physiologist or occupational therapist can also help with ways to conserve your energy for fun or important things.

You may find that the fatigue gets worse as the disease progresses – complementary therapies such as meditation and relaxation can reduce distress and help you and your family cope.


Breathlessness (dyspnoea) may be caused by the cancer itself, an infection, a side effect of treatment, anxiety or an underlying disorder such as asthma or emphysema.

Depending on the cause, breathlessness may be managed with taking medicine (such as low-dose morphine), draining fluid from around the lungs, or having oxygen therapy (if your oxygen levels are low). Simple ways to improve breathlessness are to:

Sex, intimacy and palliative care

People with advanced cancer usually experience major physical and psychological changes. While these can have an effect on how you feel sexually, it doesn’t mean that intimacy needs to end.

For many people, intimacy can provide comfort and maintain connection. Even if sexual intercourse is no longer possible or desired, you may enjoy physical closeness through cuddling, stroking or massage.

If you feel that you can, talk with your partner about how you are feeling, concerns about the sexual changes in your relationship, and ways to maintain intimacy.

If you have concerns, talk to your GP, nurse or psychologist.

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Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are widely used alongside conventional medical treatments, usually to help manage side effects of cancer or its treatment.

Therapies such as meditation, massage and acupuncture can increase your sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve your mood.

Let your doctors know about any therapies you are using or thinking about trying, as some may not be safe or evidence-based, or may not work well with your current treatment.

Joining a clinical trial

Your doctor or nurse may suggest that you take part in a clinical trial. Doctors run clinical trials to test new or modified treatments to see if they are better than current methods.

Over the years, clinical trials have improved palliative care and the management of common symptoms of advanced cancer.

You may find it helpful to talk to your specialist, clinical trials nurse or GP, or to get a second opinion. If you decide to take part in a clinical trial, you can withdraw at any time. 

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Planning ahead

When diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, some people think about what is important to them.

Palliative care teams are experienced with helping patients and their families talk about their goals and preferences for care, and the amount of treatment they want for the cancer. This process is called advance care planning.


Understanding Palliative Care

Download our Understanding Palliative Care booklet to learn more

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