Palliative care

What is advanced cancer?

Advanced cancer is when a cancer spreads from where it started to other areas of the body. For example, cancer may have started in the breast (the primary cancer) and now it has spread to the bones or liver. This can also be called secondary or metastatic cancer. Not all doctors use the term advanced cancer to mean the exact same thing. When we talk about advanced cancer here, we mean cancer that cannot be cured.

Not all advanced cancers spread to other parts of the body. For example, some types of brain cancer cannot be cured, even though they have not spread to other parts of the body. But they are still called advanced cancer.

Advanced cancer cannot be cured but this does not mean it cannot be treated. In many cases, patients still receive treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy to shrink their cancer. Treatment can shrink the cancer, stop its growth, reduce symptoms and give a person a better quality of life. You may live for many years with advanced cancer.

It can be a difficult time for you and your family if you are told that your cancer cannot be cured and is advanced. You may find our range of booklets and factsheets on coping with cancer useful. You can download them here or you can call the Cancer Nurseline Freefone 1800 200 700 to order a copy.

As your cancer grows you may experience symptoms that need to be treated. These symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, pain, breathlessness, cough and constipation. You may then be referred to the palliative care team, who are experts in managing the symptoms of advanced cancer.

Palliative care is a free service for all patients with advanced cancer. You do not need medical insurance. Sometimes a person who does not have incurable cancer will be referred to the palliative care team because they have a symptom that is difficult to treat, for example, pain. The palliative care team are experts in managing pain.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care aims to improve the quality of life of patients and their families when their cancer can no longer be cured. As well as providing relief from pain, nausea and other symptoms, palliative care offers support and comfort to patients. It involves caring for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs in the best way possible. 

Patients and their families often have many doubts, fears and worries when facing a diagnosis of advanced cancer. The palliative care team can offer immense emotional support and advice during this difficult time. Members of the team will do all they can to improve a patient’s quality of life and help them and their family to cope.

Many patients and families find it difficult to come to terms with the words ‘palliative care’. These fears are understandable. Many will worry that their loved one will lose hope or that the patient and family will lose their privacy and dignity.

If you would like to discuss these concerns, you can call the Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 and speak in confidence to a specialist cancer nurse. 

For more information on palliative care, see this short video from the Irish Association for Palliative Care.

The palliative care team

The palliative care team is a group of specially trained doctors, nurses, social workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, complementary therapists, chaplains and counsellors.

Palliative care is provided in the following settings:

  • General hospitals, by the specialist palliative care team
  • A person’s own home, by specialist palliative nurses who work with your family doctor, the specialist palliative care team and public health nurse
  • Community hospitals and nursing homes, by specialist palliative nurses who work with your family doctor and/or a specialist palliative care team
  • The hospice

How is palliative care arranged?

Palliative care can be arranged by the family doctor (GP) or by the hospital the patient is attending.

If you are thinking about arranging palliative care but are worried about how and when to introduce it, discuss it with the patient’s medical team in the hospital or their family doctor. You can also call the Cancer Nurseline Freefone 1800 200 700 and speak in confidence with a specialist nurse.

What is a hospice?

The hospice is a specialist unit which provides palliative care. You can attend the hospice as an inpatient or an outpatient (day care). The hospice mainly treats illnesses that can no longer be cured. Many people who receive hospice care have cancer but they also treat patients with conditions such as motor neurone disease and multiple sclerosis.

If you are referred to the hospice it does not necessarily mean that you are going to die soon. You may be referred to the hospice as an inpatient for the following reasons:

  • To get your symptoms under control. For example, pain or nausea.
  • To give you and your carers support and a break. This is called respite care.
  • For rehabilitation. Services such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, complementary therapies and dietetics may be available to you and improve your wellbeing and quality of life.
  • For end-of-life care.

There are inpatient hospices in every county in Ireland. You can find a link to each one at the Irish Hospice Foundation's Directory of Local Services.

If there is no inpatient hospice in your area, there may be hospice beds available in community hospitals or nursing homes locally. Visit the Irish Hospice Foundation’s website for a list of services in your area.

What is end-of-life care?

End-of-life care is an important part of palliative care treatment. It involves the care of patients during the last few days, weeks or months of life to ensure their comfort and dignity.
A Time to Care is a booklet produced by the Irish Cancer Society for family members who are caring for someone seriously ill at home. For a free copy, call the Cancer Nurseline on Freefone 1800 200 700.
The Irish Hospice Foundation’s Think Ahead programme helps people to think about and plan for the end of their lives. It supports people to talk meaningfully with those who are close to them about matters such as serious illness, dying and death. 
The following organisations provide information on making will:

Irish Cancer Society Night Nurses

The Irish Cancer Society can provide a night nurse, free of charge, for up to 10 nights if you need end-of-life care at home. The night nurse can also give practical support and reassurance to your family. You can find out more about this service from your GP, local public health nurse, a member of the homecare team or the palliative care services at the hospital.

Click here for more information on Irish Cancer Society Night Nursing.

Frequently asked questions about palliative care

If you would like to know more about palliative care, our page Palliative care - frequently asked questions has information on palliative care at home, the effect on emotions and relationships and managing symptoms and medication. 

Palliative care - frequently asked questions

Useful websites concerning palliative care

Note: The Irish Cancer Society is not responsible for the content of external websites.
A Time to Care is a booklet for family members who are caring for someone seriously ill at home. For a free copy, call the Cancer Nurseline Freefone 1800 200 700 or download a copy.
If you require information on bereavement services please see our bereavement support information page.