When you or someone you love has cancer, the early days are often spent talking about stages and tests and treatments and remission. But when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body and can no longer be controlled or treated, the cancer has reached the final stage which leads to death. This is known as terminal cancer.
A diagnosis of terminal cancer does not mean all treatments will stop. But the goals of the treatments will change from fighting the cancer to keeping the patient as comfortable as possible. The treatment plan will be customized for the patient’s symptoms and may include medications and other techniques to control pain, and help with constipation, nausea, difficulty breathing, and other concerns.
When people hear that a condition is terminal, a common question is to ask the doctor how long the patient will live. In most cases, this is a very difficult question for the doctor to answer. The most honest answer may be that he doesn’t know.
Talking about death
Some people, when they are told they have terminal cancer, just want to ignore the diagnosis and pretend they didn’t hear that the end is near. But many people find comfort in talking about death and the process of dying as their time gets closer.
Some people may also feel the need to reconnect with friends and family or make amends for things they wish had been different in their lives. The bottom line is that there is no right or wrong way to go through the process of dying.
If someone you love has terminal cancer, it is important to be there for that person. Even when you don’t know what to say or how to “fix things” you can help by holding her hand and listening to whatever she needs to say. Knowing that you care enough to be there may be more comforting than anything else you could do.
When someone is close to the end of life, hospice has many resources that can help. Hospice is a program that can help take care of the patient with the goal of keeping her comfortable. Hospice personnel are trained to give medications to control pain as well as helping take care of the emotional, social, and spiritual needs of the patient and her family.
Hospice care is available in home as well as in nursing homes and other facilities, which may allow a patient with terminal cancer to be at home in her last days and hours. Hospice workers can also help explain what symptoms might occur as the end of life draws closer.
National Cancer Institute. Last Days of Life (PDQ ®). Web. October 24, 2011.
National Cancer Institute. End-of-Life Care: Questions and Answers. Web. October 24, 2011.
American Cancer Society. Facing the final stage of life. Web. October 24, 2011.
Reviewed October 27, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith