A terminal cancer diagnosis can be devastating for the whole family. If your loved one has cancer that’s been deemed terminal, you may have a number of questions, including how long they’re expected to live, what type of care they’ll need, and how you can best show your support for them at this difficult time.
While every person is different, there are some common physical and mental changes your loved one may experience as they near the end of their life. With a terminal cancer diagnosis, treatment tends to shift from curative to comfort care. This can help ensure your loved one has the best quality of life possible as they prepare to transition to death. Read on to learn more about the signs and symptoms of terminal cancer, options for care, and how you can help your loved one through this heartbreaking transition.
What Is Terminal Cancer?
Terminal cancer is cancer that can’t be cured and is expected to cause death. Also referred to as end-stage cancer, terminal cancer no longer responds to treatment. While it can be difficult to predict when death will occur, it’s usually within a limited window, such as several weeks or months.
Any type of cancer can become terminal. In the United States, the deadliest forms of cancer are:
- Terminal lung cancer
- Terminal colorectal cancer
- Terminal pancreatic cancer
- Terminal breast cancer
- Terminal prostate cancer
- Terminal liver cancer
Are All Advanced Cancers Terminal?
You may be wondering if advanced cancer and terminal cancer are the same thing, but not all advanced cancers are terminal. Both types of cancers are incurable, but unlike terminal cancer, advanced cancer still responds to treatment. Treatment for advanced cancer may delay the progression of the disease, which in turn can prolong life.
Terminal cancer doesn’t respond to treatment, so the goal of care shifts to comfort as the patient approaches the end of their life.
Signs and Symptoms of Terminal Cancer
Every person’s experience with terminal cancer can look different. However, there are some common symptoms that often show up when the disease has become incurable and is expected to lead to death.
Signs and symptoms of terminal cancer can include:
- Profound tiredness and weakness
- Loss of appetite and interest in food
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sleeping for much of the day
- Agitation or restlessness
- Becoming withdrawn from others
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
Signs That Death is Near
When death is approaching, you’ll notice your loved one going through a number of bodily changes. Signs of the final hours of life include:
- Irregular breathing or gasping for breath
- A drop in blood pressure and body temperature
- Irregular heart rate
- Mottled skin that appears blue or purple in color
What Is the Life Expectancy With Terminal Cancer?
A number of factors go into determining life expectancy with terminal cancer, including the type of cancer, the person’s age, overall health, and whether or not they have any other health conditions. While there’s no way to predict exactly when your loved one will die, death typically occurs within weeks to months of a terminal cancer diagnosis. It’s best to speak to a doctor for a more accurate prognosis.
What Type of Care Will a Loved One With Terminal Cancer Need?
Terminal cancer is incurable and no longer responds to treatments. That’s why with terminal illness, the focus of care switches to helping the patient feel comfortable, and doctors stop any medications or interventions meant to cure the cancer at this time.
However, that doesn’t mean your loved one will no longer receive any medical treatment. Their doctor may prescribe medications to help relieve pain, nausea, and other symptoms. Alternative therapies, such as massage, Reiki, acupuncture, and breathing and relaxation techniques may also help.
A terminal illness like cancer can also take a major toll on mental health. Grief, anger, frustration, and sadness are common emotions to experience as the end of life approaches. A counselor or other mental health provider can help your loved one process these emotions and accept what’s to come so they may find some peace as death draws near.
The Role of Hospice Care
If your loved one has terminal cancer and their doctor estimates that they have six months or less to live, they qualify for hospice care. This is a specialized form of care for people dying from a terminal illness, that focuses on comfort and quality of life. Hospice care will help ensure your loved one spends their final days, weeks, and months in a comfortable environment, while helping to support their dignity. Hospice care can be provided at home or in a healthcare facility, such as a nursing home or hospice center.
A hospice care team consists of doctors, nurses, specialists, counselors, social workers, home health aids, and spiritual or faith leaders. Your loved one’s team will work together to deliver care that focuses on enhancing their physical, emotional, mental, and, if desired, spiritual health.
Caregiving assistance, as well as bereavement counseling and access to support groups, are also available for your family members.
If you or a loved one is living with a terminal or chronic illness, contact the Sage Family of Companies today to talk about your options.
What to Say to Someone Who Has Terminal Cancer
It can be tough to know what to say to a loved one who is dying of cancer. Some people may be open and honest about their emotions as they approach the end of life, while others may be more reserved and appear not to want to talk about it. Whatever way your loved one is handling their diagnosis, there are a number of things you can do to show support. Consider the following when spending time with your loved one at the end of life:
- Listen attentively to what they’re saying and don’t interrupt or dismiss them.
- Ask open-ended questions like, “how are you feeling?” and “is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
- Avoid denying the reality of the situation. Don’t say things like “you’ll be better in no time” or “you can beat this.”
- If you’re unsure what to say, it’s okay to admit that. Your loved one may want to take the lead or simply sit with you.
- Share fond memories and stories about your life. Ask for your loved one’s experiences if they’re willing and able to share.
- Tell them you love them and assure them their family and friends will be okay when they’ve passed on.
- If you or your loved one cries or expresses anger or fear, let it happen. These are normal emotions during this time.
- Offer to watch their favorite television show with them, or listen to their favorite music.
- Ask if they’re interested in meeting with a faith or spiritual leader and offer to set up that visit.
- If your loved one can no longer communicate, keep talking to them. They may be able to hear and understand you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about terminal cancer.
Can You Beat Terminal Cancer?
By definition, terminal cancer is incurable, so it’s not possible to beat it, and it will ultimately cause death. However, there are a number of treatments that can help relieve pain and other symptoms and make the person with terminal cancer as comfortable as possible during their final days, weeks, and months.
What Stage Cancer Is Terminal?
Stage 4 cancer is the most severe form of cancer. Stage 4 cancer has spread from the location where it started to distant parts of the body. This type of cancer isn’t always terminal, but it requires more aggressive therapies. It’s the most likely stage of cancer to be fatal.
When a loved one is diagnosed with terminal cancer, you may feel angry, sad, and even hopeless. But there are many ways you can be there for them during this difficult time, and hospice care can help make their transition from life as comfortable as possible.
The Sage Family of Companies is here to answer any questions you may have.