Help us to stop bowel cancer

Palliative care

If you have been diagnosed with advanced cancer, your healthcare team may offer you treatment to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life. They will also offer you emotional support and practical advice. This is called palliative care.

This page describes what palliative care involves and where to get support and more information.

Dealing with the news

Being told that your cancer can’t be cured, or that your treatment will be palliative, can be distressing and worrying. Some people think that palliative care is for people at the end of their lives. But this isn’t always the case. You can have palliative care alongside cancer treatments that aim to help you live longer.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care aims to:

  • Control pain and other symptoms quickly and effectively
  • Help you stay as active as possible
  • Provide emotional and spiritual support
  • Help you live a full life and treat dying as a natural process
  • Offer support to your family to help them cope.

It can’t cure your cancer, but it aims to improve your quality of life. You may have palliative treatments alongside your cancer treatment when you are first diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer, or soon after. This can help you cope with the symptoms of your cancer and the side effects of your cancer treatment, such as pain, sickness, tiredness and emotional stress. Some people may start palliative care after their cancer treatment has stopped working.

Palliative treatments may include:

Macmillan Cancer Support has information on pain and pain relief.

Palliative care also offers emotional, social and spiritual support to you and your family. It helps you to stay independent for as long as possible and helps you make decisions about your care.

Getting palliative care

Where possible, you should be able to choose where you would like to be cared for. You may have palliative care at home, in hospital, at a care home or in a hospice. You may also be able to visit hospices during the day to have palliative treatments, complementary or creative therapies and to take part in social activities.  A range of organisations offer free palliative care, including the NHS, social services and voluntary organisations.

You may get care from your regular healthcare team, a specialist palliative care team and from family or friends. Your GP or your healthcare team can refer you to a palliative care team or tell you what palliative care services are available locally.

Palliative care teams are made up of staff who specialise in palliative care. They may be based in your local hospital or hospice. They may include doctors, specialist nurses, clinical psychologists, counsellors and other health professionals, like physiotherapists and dietitians. They will listen to your wishes and beliefs and offer emotional and practical support to help you make decisions and carry on with your everyday life.

Support for family and friends

Family and friends often give valuable care and support to people living with advanced cancer. Caring for someone can be challenging. If you are caring for a loved one, you may have times where you would like more support or more of a say in how your loved one is cared for.

The healthcare team can be a good source of local support for friends and family. The following organisations also provide information, advice and support for family and friends who are caring for someone with a life-limiting illness. Looking after yourself and getting the help you need will allow you to support your loved one.

Carers Trustsupports unpaid carers by providing breaks, information, advice and education, training and employment opportunities. They also have websites for young carers under the age of 18 and aged 16-25.

Carers UKgives support, information and advice to family and friends who act as carers. has videos of carers talking about looking after someone with a terminal illness.

Marie Curie has detailed information on the practical issues of looking after someone as well as where you can get support.

Children and young people can sometimes find it difficult to understand what is happening when a family member has a life-limiting illness. You can read about talking to children on our diagnosis pages. The charity Riprap and the healthcare company BUPA also have information for children and young people.

More information

Hospice UK has information on hospice care and how to find your local hospice.

Macmillan Cancer Support has information on controlling symptoms and side effects and on palliative care.

Maggie’s offers free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their families and friends. 

Marie Cure provides information on palliative care.

NHS Inform has an online palliative care zone for people living in Scotland.

Updated October 2016. Due for review October 2018.