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Addressing the Needs of a Person with Terminal Cancer

When a person is dying of cancer, the goal of care is providing as much comfort as possible. Often a change is made from a cure focus to a care focus. This means providing comfort with the least invasive procedures, while maintaining privacy and dignity. A person who is dying of cancer has many needs, including the following:

  • Routine for sleep and rest. Lack of sleep may be caused by a number of reasons, such as visitors, discomfort, fear of not waking up, restlessness, or day and night confusion. Keep a night light on and/or a bell or intercom in the person’s room. This will help the person if he or she is awakened and confused. A clock is also helpful.

  • Nutritional issues. Nutritional issues may be difficult to address. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and eating less often go along with the effects of treatment and the progression of the disease. High protein shakes may be an option if the person is only able to eat or drink small amounts. A nasogastric or gastric tube is another option for supplemental nutrition. A gastric tube is placed through the skin into the stomach. A nasogastric tube is a tube placed in through the nose and extends to the stomach for delivery of medicines and/or nutrition. Total parenteral nutrition is when nutrients, calories, protein, fat, and/or all caloric needs are given through a vein. This may be necessary if significant nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea are present.

  • Changes in bowel or bladder control. A seriously ill or dying person may have diarrhea, constipation, or incontinence. Care should be given to provide the person with a clean environment. It is also important not to embarrass or humiliate a person that has recently lost bowel or bladder control.

  • Skin care. Various factors can cause skin breakdown and/or pain. Infection may occur in this situation. The decision to use antibiotics can be discussed with the person’s healthcare provider.

  • Respiratory changes. Respiratory changes may happen from pneumonia, the effects of narcotics, or the progression of the disease. Often, people will feel they are unable to catch their breath. Air hunger, as this is often called, can be scary. Decreased oxygen in the bloodstream may also cause a seizure. Oxygen supplied through the nose or by a mask may be needed for comfort. A simple fan directing air at the person may help the sensation of breathlessness. Sometimes medicines can also lower the person’s anxiety related to breathing difficulties.

  • Managing discharge. Discharge from the nose, mouth, and throat may be difficult to manage with a terminally ill person. Suction devices are available. It may also help to reposition the person to help drain the excess discharge. There are also medicines that help lessen the amount of discharge.

  • Managing pain. Every step should be taken to eliminate pain from the dying process. Pain control options and management plans should be discussed before the person experiences significant pain. It is important to understand that the ultimate goal is comfort. Pain management is an important topic to discuss with your healthcare provider.

Physical Needs of the Person With Terminal Cancer - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Levin, Mark, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Ziegler, Olivia, MS, PA
Last Review Date: 2016-01-18T00:00:00
Last Modified Date: 2016-03-23T00:00:00
Posting Date: 2008-11-30T00:00:00
Published Date: 2016-03-23T00:00:00
Last Review Date: 2012-06-04T00:00:00
© 2016 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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