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Palliative Care for Childhood Cancer

Palliative care is a special type of care aimed at improving quality of life for someone with a life-threatening illness. For children with cancer, this type of care is usually given alongside curative treatment. Palliative care for childhood cancer is a broad term that encompasses many types of care and treatment.

Childhood cancer does not just impact the child’s physical body. It affects their mental and emotional health, development, and relationships with family members and peers. Palliative care aims at addressing the child’s physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual needs, as well as those of their family. Since family members and other caregivers have an impact on the child’s health, palliative care for childhood cancer is designed to help them, too. 

Though sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, palliative care and hospice care are not the same. Hospice care is a type of palliative care for someone who is no longer expected to live. Unlike palliative care, which can take place at any time throughout the course of illness, hospice care is reserved for the end of someone’s life.

How does palliative care help children with cancer?

Palliative care is tailored to the individual child’s and family’s wants and needs. Some of the ways palliative care can help children with cancer and their families are:

  • Managing physical symptoms of cancer and its treatment, including pain, itching, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue and more
  • Helping patients and family members cope with stress, fear and anger
  • Helping patients and family members manage psychological problems such as depression and anxiety
  • Helping patients and family members understand cancer, treatment and what the child with cancer is experiencing
  • Offering emotional and spiritual support to children and family members
  • Assisting parents and older patients in making decisions about their treatment and care
  • Helping parents talk to their children about death
  • Providing activities to enhance quality of life, such as music and art therapy
  • Facilitating communication and coordinating treatment among care team members
  • Helping transition the child’s care from hospital to home
  • Providing grief counseling

Who is on the palliative care team for childhood cancer?

Palliative care teams vary between hospitals and institutions, and an individual child’s care team can be as large or as small as their family needs it to be. The palliative care team for children with cancer is made up of specialists trained in supporting children with serious illnesses. They can include:

  • Doctors and nurses
  • Social workers
  • Child life specialists
  • Physical and occupational therapists
  • Psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors
  • Art and music therapists
  • Dietitians and nutritionists
  • Chaplains and spiritual advisors
  • Home health aides

How can parents support their child in palliative care?

Seeing your child sick and in pain is one of the hardest parts of being a parent of a child with cancer. At the American Childhood Cancer Organization, we know that you want to do everything in your power to ease your child’s suffering. As part of our commitment to support families of children with cancer, we offer A Parent’s Guide to Enhancing Quality of Life in Children With Cancer, a 261-page guide available for free in our digital library. You may also request a hard copy as part of our free childhood cancer resources for families, and additional copies can be purchased from our store.

Your child’s palliative care team is there to make them as comfortable as possible during their childhood cancer experience, and they’re there to help you too. By working together, you can provide your child with the support they need no matter where they are in their cancer journey.

The ACCO is the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots childhood cancer organization, committed to shaping policy, supporting research, and providing resources for children with cancer, families and survivors. With your help, we can continue to provide these resources for free. Donate now.


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