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Palliative Care

Palliative care is a branch of medicine that is dedicated to preventing and relieving pain and suffering. There is a role for the tools of palliative care at all stages of disease in helping to reduce and control the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment throughout the cancer journey. Palliative care is provided by a team of health care providers with a variety of specialties and usually takes on a greater role as someone transitions towards the end of life.

Palliative care includes the following:

  • Reducing the symptoms of breast cancer and the side effects of treatment

  • Managing pain

  • Addressing emotional, psychological and spiritual needs

  • Enjoying and enhancing relationships with friends and family

  • Supporting the patient in living as actively and fully as possible

  • Supporting caregivers

  • Preparing for the end of life

Palliative care may be offered at home, in a hospital or in a hospice, which is a facility designed to provide for the needs of people who are in the advanced stages of a life-threatening illness, often at the end of life.

The end of life can be very difficult to talk about. Some people wait until their cancer is at an advanced stageStage:
A way of classifying breast cancer that describes how far a cancer has spread. It identifies whether breast cancer is at an early, locally advanced or metastatic stage. The stage of breast cancer can sometimes be represented as a number (e.g. between 0 and 4).
, while others prefer to have discussions when they are still relatively healthy. While it can be a distressing subject to raise, don’t be afraid to bring up and discuss end-of-life issues with your loved ones and health care team at a time that is best for you.

Some of the issues you may want to discuss include the type of care you wish to receive or where you would like to receive your care. Discussing your wishes with your loved ones and health care team ahead of time helps ensure that your end-of-life needs and wishes are respected. You may also want to have a living willLiving will:
A legal document that outlines your wishes around the types of treatments and life-sustaining measures you want and don’t want to receive in case you are unable to let your health care team know yourself.
prepared by a lawyer and/or to choose someone you trust to make medical decisions for you in case you are unable to do this yourself. 

When people are receiving palliative care and approaching the end of life, they often stop and refocus on what is really important in their lives. It can be a time for meaningful reflection and for making the most of time with the people around them.

Caregivers, Family and Friends: Providing Support at the End of Life

If you are the caregiver, family or friend of a person who is approaching the end of life, there are ways that you can provide support and comfort to your loved one. People who are reaching the end of life may need support and care in several areas – physical comfort, mental and emotional needs, spiritual needs, and practical tasks. Everyone has different needs during this time and it may be helpful to ask your loved one how you can best support them or what they need to make them comfortable. 

Some of the ways that you can provide support in these areas include:

  • Making them physically comfortable and their surroundings pleasant. This may involve helping them find a more comfortable position, adjusting their room temperature for them, providing blankets or cool cloths, brightening their room with favourite pictures or items – or anything else they express would make them more comfortable

  • Providing physical contact by holding their hand, a touch, or light massage

  • Spending time talking, reading, watching movies, laughing or just being together

  • Sharing memories and reminiscing about their life if they indicate that this would be helpful for them

  • Arranging for visits from friends, family, and/or members of their faith community

  • Being prepared and willing to listen to any fears or concerns they have about dying or what will happen to their loved ones

  • Respecting any wishes they may have to be alone, even though you may want to spend as much time as possible with them

  • Assuring them that their end of life wishes and decisions will be respected

  • Helping with practical tasks – even small ones can make a big difference. Taking the family pet for a walk, picking up groceries or mail, doing a load of laundry, or taking any children to their extracurricular activities can be helpful to both them and their caregiver.

If you are close to someone who is nearing the end of life, it is important that you take care of your own physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual needs. Losing someone you care about is a difficult process, and ensuring that your needs are met will allow you to provide the best possible care to your loved one. Friends and family can be a big source of support for you – don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. You may also consider seeing a counsellor, or joining a support group or online community where you can connect with and learn from the experiences of others.


National Cancer Institute. End-of-Life Care for People Who Have Cancer. Accessed February 11, 2014

National Institute on Aging. End of Life: Helping with Comfort and Care. Accessed February 11, 2014