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?
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.
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.
Useful websites concerning palliative care
- Adult Palliative Hub (For adults with palliative care needs, their family members, carers and friends in Ireland)
- Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
- Irish Hospice Foundation
- National Association for Widows in Ireland
- Rainbows Ireland (Peer support for children and young adults experiencing loss)
- The Carers Association
- Turning Point (Counselling and psychotherapy)