What is palliative care?

Palliative care describes personalised care that’s designed to help people with a progressive or life-limiting illness live as well as possible.2 By helping people manage their physical symptoms, as well as other emotional or social needs, palliative care aims to maintain their quality of life.2

In patients with cancer, palliative care to help relieve or control symptoms can involve medication, surgery, radiation therapy, or a combination of these.2 Your care team will work with you to determine which approach is right for you.

What is palliative radiation therapy?

Palliative radiation therapy is radiation therapy given to patients with advanced or incurable cancer who seek to reduce or relieve cancer symptoms.1 It does not aim to cure cancer; instead, the goal is to help shrink or slow growth of the cancer and to help relieve or control symptoms caused by the cancer – aiming to maintain or improve quality of life.1

Why have palliative radiation therapy?

Palliative radiation therapy is used for a range of reasons including:

  • Relieving pain associated with cancer that has spread (metastasised) to bones1,3,4
  • Relieving pain caused by spinal cord compression, as well as reducing symptoms such as muscle weakness, impaired mobility, and loss of bowel or bladder function1,3,5
  • Reducing symptoms caused by cancer that has spread (metastasised) to the brain, such as headaches, nausea, and seizures1,3,6
  • Relieving pressure or blockages in tubes such as the oesophagus (food pipe) or trachea (windpipe), which can occur with head and neck cancers and are associated with symptoms including difficulty swallowing, chest pain, and shortness of breath1,3,7
  • Reducing bleeding, pain, and dysfunction associated with cancers that affect the gastrointestinal and genitourinary systems, such as bowel or rectal cancer, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and cervical or uterine cancer1,3,8-10

How is palliative radiation therapy delivered?

Palliative radiation therapy can be used in combination with other palliative care options, including surgery, medications, and non-medical palliative care interventions. It can also be delivered alongside active cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy.2,3

Palliative radiation therapy can be given using different techniques and be delivered in different doses, which may be given in a single visit or over multiple visits.2 As palliative radiation therapy aims to relieve or reduce symptoms, it generally uses shorter treatment courses than radiation therapy that is intended to cure cancer – helping to limit the time and effort needed for patients to receive treatment.1,3,11

Palliative radiation therapy may not be suitable for all patients – it depends on the type, location and size of the cancer being treated, as well as individual patient circumstances and preferences.1,11 Your care team will discuss with you whether palliative radiation therapy is an option for you.

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Any medical procedure or treatment involving the use of radiation carries risks, including skin irritation and associated pain. Before proceeding with treatment, you should discuss the risks and benefits of the treatment with an appropriately qualified health practitioner. Individual treatment outcomes and experiences will vary.