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Final Stages of Cancer: What to Expect When a Loved One Is Dying

When a loved one reaches the final stages of their cancer, the accompanying physical changes can be uncomfortable or even painful for them and distressing to the people who care about them. But, there are steps that caregivers can take to ease some of the symptoms a cancer patient may experience during the last few months of their life and make the time the family has left together as comfortable as possible.

Physical Symptoms of the Last Stage of Cancer

In the final stages of cancer, your loved one may show some or all the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue: Almost every person in the final stages of cancer will experience fatigue—an ongoing sense of extreme physical, mental, and emotional tiredness.
  • Loss of appetite and thirst: Your loved one might start eating and drinking less than before, typically due to a slower metabolism and increased pain and fatigue. In many cases, changes in taste and smell, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other unpleasant symptoms may make it difficult to eat or drink.
  • Interruptions or changes in breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate: This may happen sporadically and at random moments, regardless of whether your loved one is awake or asleep.
  • Exacerbated pain: In the final stages of cancer or illness, it might be natural for your loved one to experience more physical pain, including noisy breathing, groaning or moaning, distressed facial expressions, or tense or restless body language or movement.

How You Can Help Your Loved One Ease Their Symptoms

Palliative and hospice care emphasize easing symptoms and relieving pain in a patient’s final stages of cancer or illness. As a caregiver it’s important for you to accept the circumstance and do your part to help your loved one feel as comfortable as possible.

If your loved one is experiencing the symptoms above, try these comforting/easing measures:

Prolonged fatigue and/or sleep:

Coordinate with family and friends to plan visits when your loved one is most likely to be awake or when their presence may be most comforting. Ask the doctor about changing their medication regimen. Depending on the extent of their fatigue, your loved one may appreciate having the use of a wheelchair, a walker, or a bedside toilet chair.

Loss of appetite and thirst:

Help spark your loved one’s appetite by serving small frequent meals and eating together as a family. However, try not to show distress when your loved one is eating less. It’s not a sign that their interest in life is waning — it’s simply a natural part of the final stages of their cancer or illness.

Issues with breathing:

Help raise your loved one’s head up, and adjust their sitting or lying position by putting them on their back or slightly to one side. Make sure there are enough pillows to prop their head and chest up. Avoid stuffiness in the air with oxygen or by placing a humidifier in the vicinity. Ask the nurse or doctor if additional medicine may help.

Intensified pain:

Keep a record of where the pain is, how it feels, its duration, when it starts, and what makes it better or worse. This log can help your loved one’s doctor adjust their pain relief medication, which may include long-acting, time-released opioids, administered via lozenges or skin patches. Very severe pain may warrant a pain medicine pump, which administers the drugs subcutaneously or intravenously. You can do your part to help comfort and soothe your loved one with gentle touching, caressing, and rocking back and forth.

Choosing an End-of-Life Care Location

Once the news has been brought that the patient is in their final stages of illness, one of the first things to consider will be where the patient wants to spend their last few months of life. The number one priority at this stage is working to preserve the patient’s comfort and dignity, and empowering them to choose an end-of-life care location can make all the difference. Options may include:

Home Care

Some patients prefer a home environment, which may call back powerful emotions of family, connection, love, and togetherness. The home may also be more accessible for family and friends to visit and provide emotional as well as practical support. You can choose to take on the caregiver role yourself or use a home care service, depending on what makes sense for you and your family.

Inpatient Hospice Care

Inpatient care focuses on easing the patient’s symptoms, relieving pain, and preserving, as best as possible, a high quality of life in their remaining time. Inpatient care may take the form of assisted living, hospital, or hospice facility — all of which provide dedicated support and attention to the patient around the clock.

Whatever you collectively decide on as a family, the important thing will be to prioritize your loved one’s comfort and dignity throughout the process. Also seek clarity to make sure the decision makes sense financially for everybody involved (see below for how Fifth Season Financial may be able to help).

Financial Help in the Final Stages of Cancer

In addition to physical challenges, the final stages of cancer may also bring about additional financial challenges at the end of a long and costly treatment process. If your family needs supplementary funds to pay for care and ensure your loved one’s quality of life, please contact Fifth Season Financial to learn more about the Funds for Living Program — a way to get funding from your loved one’s life insurance policy that can be used for their care today, without selling the policy.

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