Two hands holding

Palliative care

What is palliative care?

Palliative care focuses on the quality of life of people who have a progressive, life-limiting illness. It includes pain and symptoms management, skilled psychosocial, emotional and spiritual support and comfortable living conditions with the appropriate level of care – at home, in hospice residences, in long-term care, in hospital or in any other setting of the person’s choice.

Palliative care is a critical component of the cancer continuum of care and healthcare overall. Palliative care should be provided early, introduced progressively and with other therapies. Palliative care uses an interdisciplinary team approach to support people with cancer and their caregivers. This includes addressing practical needs and providing grief and bereavement counselling. It offers a support system to help people live as actively as possible until death. End-of-life care is a component of palliative care that focuses on the specific needs of someone who is dying.

The importance of palliative care?

The impact of palliative care has been studied extensively. Research shows that palliative care:

improves quality of life and satisfaction with care for people with cancer and their family caregivers

means less use of hospital emergency departments during the last year of life

increases the likelihood that people with cancer will die in a setting of their choice

Palliative care has been shown to be particularly effective when delivered early, before the last stages of life. However, the quality and availability of palliative care differs between and within provinces and territories. Access to quality palliative care is particularly challenging for underserved populations, such as rural and remote communities, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, and unhoused populations. Even when palliative care services are available, not all Canadians know about these services or how to access them.

While palliative care is often thought of as an option that is only available for people once curative treatment is no longer an option, palliative care can and should be delivered throughout the cancer journey

Gaps in care

Critically ill Canadians are falling through the cracks when it comes to palliative care. Canada’s patchwork of palliative care services is costly and inconsistent, which is bad for patients and for the sustainability of our healthcare system. Find out more in the report entitled: Right to Care: Palliative care for all Canadians

Current advocacy in palliative care

The Canadian Cancer Society has been advocating for better access to palliative care for Canadians for many years. Palliative care began as a treatment approach for people with cancer. In this time, various initiatives have been put forward at the federal level to better support Canadians with cancer and their caregivers. Progress has been significant, but gaps still remain.

CCS calls on the federal government to:

Provide all healthcare providers, including allied providers, appropriate education and training on the basic principles and practices of palliative care to ensure people with cancer receive the highest quality of care.

Improve palliative care research and systematic, standardized data collection by developing data systems to measure access to palliative care, both at home and in community settings such as long-term care facilities and residential hospices

Develop and implement standards or practice guidelines to identify, assess and refer people with cancer to palliative care services earlier in their cancer experience to ensure optimal quality of life.

CCS calls on provincial and territorial governments to:  

Expand equitable, timely and culturally safe access to 24/7 home and community-based supports for people with cancer and underserved populations in accordance with their needs, including access to virtual services to reduce hospital visits   
Establish a consistent approach to early identification and assessment of needs using evidence-based tools.
Train primary care workforces to provide basic symptom management and supportive care to people with cancer at their end of life, including advanced care planning conversations.
Strengthen caregiver supports including improving access to information around available financial supports.   
Extend job-protected bereavement leave for caregivers to a 2-week period

Our position

CCS recognizes that facing a life-limiting illness, especially in relation to pain and suffering, can cause great concern and severe hardship. We remain committed to supporting people with cancer and their caregivers by ensuring they have improved access to information, education, tools and supports they need to make decisions about palliative care, advanced care planning and hospice palliative care.

Canadians should have access to affordable, culturally safe, high-quality palliative care regardless of where they live and in what setting they choose to receive care. We promote and support the need for improved development and delivery of early, active, competent and compassionate palliative care. This includes expert pain management; skilled psychosocial, emotional and spiritual support; and comfortable living conditions with the appropriate level of care – whether at home, in a hospital, at hospice residences or in any other settings of choice.

CCS’s efforts remain focused on ensuring that people with cancer have access to the information and support services they need. We remain committed to continuing to identify unmet needs of underserved populations, so our information, programs, services and advocacy are better targeted and responsive to the gaps in receiving high-quality palliative care.