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Terminal Cancer: When Death is Near What Can You Expect?

By Britta Aragon on August 25, 2010 | 34 Comments

It’s one of the hardest things to face, but if you have a loved one with terminal cancer, you may be wondering what to expect. How will you know when the end is near? What can you do about the symptoms your loved one will experience?

Someone who is close to death will go through some normal changes both physically and mentally. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help the person feel more comfortable. For example, she may lose interest in food and fluids, with little intake for days. If this happens, don’t try to force her to eat or drink—near the end of life, some dehydration is normal, and is more comfortable for the dying person. However, her mouth will probably be dry, so you can offer ice chips from a spoon, or sips of water from a straw. Apply lubricant (toxin-free moisturizer) on the lips to prevent chapping, and keep a humidifier going in the room.

Around the same time, or even before, the person may have trouble swallowing pills and medicines. Ask for liquid pain meds or a patch, and continue pain medicines (intravenously if necessary) up to the end of life. You may also want to use massage or reflexogy to help with relaxation and comfort.

Without food and drink for energy, your loved one will become very weak. He may lose control of his bowel and bladder, and may not be able to get out of bed, or even move around in bed. It will be up to you (or other caretakers) to help him change positions every hour or two, and to keep him as clean and dry as possible. Place disposable pads on the bed beneath him/her and remove them when they become soiled.

Skin changes are common as well. The skin may feel cold and dry or damp, and may darken in color. Keep the person warm with blankets or light bed coverings—avoid electric blankets and pads as they can cause burns. Involuntary movement of muscles is also normal—the person may jerk her hands, arms, or legs. Rubbing her hands and feet with a sensitive-skin lotion can help. You may also apply cool, moist cloths to the head, face, and body.

One symptom that may be particularly distressing is when your loved one’s breathing becomes irregular, or if you hear rattling or gurgling sounds with the breath. This is normal for this time, and is usually not painful to the person, but you may turn him on his side, with pillows placed beneath the head and behind the back.

In addition to physical changes, someone who is near death will experience mental changes. She may be unable to concentrate, have a short attention span, and be confused about time, place, and the people around her. She may feel particularly anxious and fearful at night, experience hallucinations, and/or talk with people who aren’t there. If you notice these changes, avoid sudden noises or movements. Speak in a calm, quiet voice—remind the person of time, place, and who is there with her. Try to be nearby at night if she gets lonely (or have another caretaker present). You may want to adjust your schedule so you can be there in times when she’s alert, like in the morning, so the two of you can enjoy that time together.

As death comes near, remember to keep touching, caressing, and holding your loved one. Leave soft, indirect lights on in the room, perhaps some soft music, and keep talking, even if he is not talking back. It’s widely believed that hearing is the last sense to go, so your voice can still be of great comfort.

As your time together draws to a close, remember that even though there is great sadness and difficulty in loss, you’re giving your loved one a great gift by accompanying him or her on such an important journey. Never doubt that your words, your touch, and your care will help provide a calm, warm, and loving transition.

“Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.”
—David Searls

Have you cared for someone in the last days of life? Please share your experience.

Information from the Mayo Clinic, The American Cancer Society, The National Cancer Institute, The Hospice Foundation of America, and cancer.net.
Photo courtesy anti-t-kom via Flickr.com.

Posted in: Caregiving


34 Comments to “Terminal Cancer: When Death is Near What Can You Expect?”

  1. Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing and offering a guide to those experiencing the loss of a loved one. It’s a difficult subject, but you wrote it in such a way that offers love and comfort to those we are losing. God bless you.

  2. Cancer Blog roundup: bad mammogram experience and more | Navigating Cancer says:

    [...] Cinco Vidas addresses the tough question of what to expect when death is near for terminal cancer patients. [...]

  3. Lauren says:

    Here is a link that answers so many questions you may have about end of life, what to expect, how to handle it and so on:

    http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Support/end-of-life-care

  4. Britta says:

    Thank you Anna for reading and sharing your thoughts. Losing a loved one is never easy and I do hope that my story brings some sort of comfort to those in similar situations. The healing process is indeed a journey and by sharing and loving we can always encourage each other to find peace. Love and light – Britta

  5. Britta says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this link Lauren. I know that my readers will appreciate the information. – Britta

  6. cassie says:

    My Grandma died from cancer my god father did. to. and now my Mom’s friend has it again. and he doesn’t got much time left.
    i am sad he’s going but i don’t wanna him to suffer.

  7. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Cassie. My heart goes out to you. I remember well when my father passed away from cancer, so I have an idea of the pain it causes. I wish you strength during this time and the support of the others that you love. I also hope you’ll be sure to take care of yourself. Having cancer in your family means you have to double your efforts to stay as healthy as you can. My best!

  8. Renee says:

    I dont understand why he is not be given fluids, intravenous medicines. Some type of medical help. Docs are just letting him die at home.
    He has terminal cancer..help cnat understand just watching someone die without doing anything but changing sheets, turning him making him comfortable.

  9. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Renee. I can feel your pain in your comment. I’m so sorry. It is so terribly difficult to lose the people we love. We can feel so helpless. At least you have your loved on at home, which is better than if he were in a hospital or somewhere foreign to him. Do you have Hospice helping you? They are wonderful at providing end of life care and would be sure your loved one was not in pain. Otherwise it’s difficult to know what to tell you when I’m not sure of the person’s condition. Trust your heart, and seek out additional care if you feel that someone is being negligent. Otherwise, take care of yourself and stay strong, and take advantage of the time you have left. Light to you!

  10. Sarah says:

    In a way I am happy to know that I am not alone but in the same sense I am saden by it. I am 17 years old and two years ago my father was dianosed with stage four lung cancer that spread to his brain,kindney, and bone at the age of 45 and the doctor only gave him 6 months to live if I must add he never drank or smoked in his entire life. The time is near for my dad he is doing everything mentioned on this site and the hospice nurse thinks he has a few weeks left to live. I have excepted it, and am prepaired for it as good as I can be. The only thing I want to say is to people who just found out about a love one that is sick or has been for awhile. Please remeber them before they got sick not the way they are now. Honestly I only remember a little bit about my dad before this happened and everytime I think of him I think of the illness that is killing him. So please take care of yourself and be proactive about your health and live each day like it was your last because you never know when your time will be up.
    thanks for listening….Sarah

  11. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Sarah. Your story touches my heart, and brings back painful memories of when I lost my dad to cancer. It seems so unfair, particularly when they are at a young and vibrant age. I myself believe that God has a plan in everything, and I count my blessings, as you said, for the time that I did share with him, and for the time I got to spend at the very end, when we had some real close talks. I wish you strength, but of course it will be hard to lose him. Nothing can ever prepare you for that. Fortunately, time has a way of balancing things out, and there will come a day when your memories of him before the illness will come back more strongly. Thank you for sharing your story, and try not to worry. Speaking from the other side of the experience, I know that we never really lose anyone that we love, but that the love only becomes stronger and more of a source of strength for us as we go. Light and love to you.

  12. Sarah says:

    My father did finally go and I am happy that he is with god now, and at peace. I miss him dearly, and I cherish all the moments he had with me…It is so hard to think that life just goes on and Im just supposed to go on and love my life. I just wish I will make my dad happy, and maybe help people that is going through this as I did. I just want to thank you for listening to my story and giving so guidence..God bless you SARAH

  13. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Sarah. I’m so happy to hear from you again. I’m very sorry for your loss. These huge people in our lives leave such a big hole that can never be filled. Time will ease the pain, though, so just be kind to yourself and take it one day at a time. You will have very difficult days, but you will get through it, and I’m sure one day you will find a way to help others as you said. I can tell how much you loved your father from your emails, so surely you will make him happy no matter what! But I often think of my father, too, and wonder what he would think of what I’m doing with my life, now. They are always with us, and eventually the reminders will be more welcome than painful. All my best to you!

  14. Sarah says:

    Thank You Britta…. : ) you have helped me more then you know!!

  15. Mona says:

    My dad passed away 8 1/2 years ago from post polio syndrome. His biggest fear was dying alone. I was able to spend his last 2 nights and 3 days with him, and had to make some tough decisions to put him in a induced coma so he wouldn’t suffer from struggling to breath. My mom was also disabled, and wasn’t able to stay all day and night. I massaged his hands and feet and talked to him all that time. On that 3rd day, his hands looked different and so I had a nurse come in and do an oxygen level check. Unfortunately there was no oxygen found, he sat up, opened his eyes, and I held his head and his hand, and told him he wasn’t alone and he could let go. After I did this, he took 1 deep breath, layed down, and was gone. I didn’t understand why it was me and not my mom, but I wouldn’t change a thing. My mom has terminal cancer now and has only up to 3 months to live. So far she is ok with very little pain, has hospice care, but is starting to loose her appetite, and is fatigued, and her circulation in her hands are getting bad. I think she is starting to look different, and she knows the cancer is moving faster than what we expected. I’m an only child and getting nervous. I am 45 years old, but feel like 5 years. What can I do?

  16. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Mona. Your story is about so much loss, but also about such tender and special moments you’re sharing with your loved ones. I’m sure you must feel very alone right now. Losing one parent is hard enough (I know), but I’m sure losing both is so much harder. I think the experience makes “children” of us all, as for so many of us, our parents are the one constant in our lives, and when they’re gone, we truly feel orphaned, no matter how old we are. Please just trust in yourself and your strength. You are obviously a very strong person to have gone through what you already have, and that will get you through. You still have so much life to live. It may help for you to remember that you are here for a reason, and that you have gifts to give to others. Perhaps best of all is the fact that you were able to be there for both of your parents so they didn’t have to go through the most difficult part of their lives alone—you gave them a great blessing. What would they have done without you?

    My heart goes out to you. Stay strong and hold onto these experiences. You never know when they may help someone else.

  17. Terrie says:

    My dad was diagnosed with stage 4 rectal cancer last summer that has spread to his bladder. . He went 2 yrs cancer free before it came back with a vengeance. I am my dads care giver and it breaks
    my heart to watch this man that I always thought was invincible waste away and suffer everyday. My dad is 69 yrs old, I know he has lived a full life, but it doesn’t make it any easier watching him slowly die.

  18. Britta Aragon says:

    Oh my gosh, Terrie, my heart goes out to you, as I was in your place back in 2007 when my father passed away. There are few things in life that are more difficult than watching someone you love suffering from a disease like cancer. The good thing is that you are with him at this difficult time, and that is such a blessing for both of you. His strength and vigor may be gone, but the soul of who he is, is still in there somewhere, and I encourage you to take the time you have left to connect as much as you can. Simple things like holding hands, rubbing lotion on his skin (find something natural!), lightly massaging sore muscles, washing his face, and other tender modes of care can help secure the bond between you. If he’s alert and would enjoy it, you may try reading to him, playing music, or maybe even playing a board game. As long as there is life there is a chance to show your love. And meanwhile, please don’t forget to take care of yourself. Eat well, get your rest, and make time for exercise. I wish you strength and love!

  19. Rikki says:

    Hi all, my mum passed on the 1st march 2013. She was fine (seemed fine!) until the the 15th Jan when she started feeling dizzy and couldnt control her balance. My dad took her to the hospital and they thort she had a stroke. They did some scans and it revealed a tumor in the brain. It got worse, they did more scans and eventually mum was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cance (Renal Cell Carcinoma) – she was given between 9-12 months, and passed within 6 weeks of bein diagnosed. I love my mum more than anyone and anything in this world, it had destroyed everything,Every day is a struggle, i hope everyone of you that has lost someone is coping. god bless xxx

  20. Britta Aragon says:

    Six weeks, Rikki? My gosh. My heart is just bleeding for you. It’s always so difficult to lose a parent, but to lose your mom so quickly. I just can’t imagine. You must be still in shock. To have everything be fine and then wham, she’s gone. Please allow yourself the time you need to feel the feelings you have, as I’m sure they must be so intense. And please get some help—find support in your family and friends, and consider a support group or counselor as well, people who can really understand where you’re coming from. Act like you have a gaping, bleeding wound in your belly, as that is what you have. It may not be a visible wound, but it’s a serious one. Get yourself some good food, good rest, some long hot baths, and whatever you need to sustain yourself through this period. I wish you strength in getting past the grief to where you can cherish the gifts your mother gave you. All my best.

  21. Heather says:

    My father has fought cancer successfully for 20yrs until now. 3 weeks ago his doctor told him the cancer was back and gave him 3-6mos to live. His decline is rapid and we are enduring his final days at home now. I am grateful to have just read everyone’s stories. It lessens my grief if only for a moment. Thank you.

  22. Britta Aragon says:

    Heather, I’m very sorry to hear about your father’s prognosis. It is never easy hearing that the cancer is getting the upper hand. I do hope your father got a second and third opinion just to be sure there are no options left. Hang in there and try to enjoy the time you have. I had some really deep conversations with my father during his last days, ones I will always treasure. My heart goes out to you.

  23. Helen says:

    My brother is at stage 1V prostrate cancer. Added complications at this time include kidney failure (has a catheter attached), tumor in his rectum (has a stoma bag attached) and tumors in his liver, bladder and kidney. He also has blood clots in both his lungs and legs. He pelvic area is extensively diseased and this has been the primary cause of pulmonary emboli formation. He is on heparin to reduce blood clot formation. When he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer (approximately one year ago) he declined to have surgery. He is at end stage prostrate cancer but is fighting it all the way. Still eats and drinks a little, but has bouts of nausea and has been experiencing more pain in the last 2 days; cramps in his feet and pain in his joints (knees), saturated from sweats on and off upon wakening, can’t sit, stand or lie down long because of discomfort caused by the tumors (especially in his rectum). He has blood oozing from his rectum intermittently as well as in his stoma and blood in his bladder bag. He is in a bad way and we are watching him waste away (weight loss is extreme). He still however is able to converse (during his awake periods) but sleeps longer. It’s very difficult to see someone you love fade away and with so much discomfort. The hospice nurses do their best by making suggestions to ease his suffering but, he mostly does not want them to visit at home. He is on high doses of morphine (for pain) which at this time is continually added to according to his condition. I pray that he has a peaceful passing but there is so much going on that at this time and it does not seem likely. I hope that my brothers time will come sooner rather than later so the suffering will cease. My sympathies go out to all those who are caring for their loved ones under similar circumstances.

  24. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Helen. I’m so very sorry to hear about your brother. You must be going through so much pain right now. I think it’s one of the worst things in life when we have to watch someone we love suffer and struggle. I felt the same way when my father was battling cancer, but I treasured the moments we had together. This time is extremely painful, but it’s also unique, in that your brother is likely to express things that he may not otherwise express. Please do continue to take care of yourself as well as you can, and realize that this is your brother’s journey—try to trust that he is going through it in a way that makes sense for him, and that he is so grateful that you are there. You will be in my prayers.

  25. Joanna Griffiths says:

    Both my parents, Mum 58 and Dad 61 have terminal cancer. My Dad was diagnosed with colorectal cancer back in 2011 that had already spread to his stomach, lungs and liver and my Mothers breast cancer from 2009 has returned and spread to her spine, lungs and liver.

    Dad underwent horrific surgery and lost 5 stone in a month but somehow managed to gain it all back, was given 6 months to live 11 months ago now and is only just now starting to suffer with pain to his liver and loss of appetite.

    Mum however who was already very thin has lost over 2 stones in weight and is now only just over 6 stone and only has an appetite on steroids but even then the weight keeps coming off.

    Mum receives hormone treatment and injections to strengthen her bones but chemo is not an option as she is too thin and weak to withstand it.

    Dad suffered injury to his bladder during surgery and suffers with regular infections from it so chemo was never an option for him either.

    It is pretty certain that Dad will no longer be with us by Christmas and I suspect that Mum is not long for this world either. All you can do is carry on the best way you can, life can be very cruel but also very kind and times like these go to show you just how precious and beautiful life can be and that is what I choose to focus on.

    Life is short, too short to waste on petty things, love, be loved and don’t sweat the small stuff x

  26. Lacey says:

    I live with my boyfriend and his parents. His dad was diagnosed with lung cancer back in October and given 8-10 months to live. A few weeks ago we were told he only had 2-6 weeks left. I’ve researched the signs of dying in cancer patients and it’s at the point where he’s lost control of his bowels. I’m wondering, and I know this is different for everyone, but can you give me an idea of how much time he has left now that it’s gotten to this point? Days? A week or more? I feel terribly insensitive for trying to calculate the time he has left, but we just really want to be home, and not stuck at work or somewhere else, for his final moments.

  27. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Joanna. Thank you so much for writing in and sharing your story. I lost a father to cancer—I can only imagine what it must be like to be facing the loss of both your parents to this disease. There really are no words for that. I can only say that I admire your strength and the choices you are making to focus on the positive. It really is all we can do. At least you do have this time with both parents to treasure and cherish. I do hope you will continue to take care of yourself. A support group may help you to have someone to talk to who is experiencing the same challenges. All my best to you!

  28. Britta Aragon says:

    Lacy, I’m so sorry. Lung cancer is fierce and so many good people are lost to this disease. As you said, everyone is different, and some people will hang on longer than we imagine they would. Loss of bladder and/or bowel control is part of the dying process, according to the National Cancer Institute, and may be a sign that death is near. (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Support/end-of-life-care) It’s hard to determine exactly how many days. My suggestion would be to take the time you can to be with your boyfriend’s father so you don’t have any regrets. All my best to you and please remember to take care of yourself during this difficult time.

  29. Marilyn says:

    My husband was officially diagnosed on his birthday, May 14, 2013, with pancreatic cancer, stage 4. He had lost a lot of weight due to loss of appetite. He started feeling sick on March 31st. I took him to the emergency room in our local hospital. He stayed in the hospital for almost 2 weeks before they sent him to a skilled nursing facility. I felt
    that he was in a lot of pain while away, but once home he seemed to feel better. Recently he has been coughing a lot. I don’t know if this is a “end of time” sign or not.

  30. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Marilyn. I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s diagnosis. As I’m not a doctor, I can’t assume to guess where he’s at in terms of survival. I would direct you to this link on Facebook where people share their pancreatic cancer stage IV survival stories. (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Stage-4-Pancreatic-Cancer-Survivor-Stories/429644960457369) It’s important to be prepared, but I wouldn’t give up on him just yet. Have you looked into other options for his treatment, such as scientific trials or other cancer centers? Here’s another link that may help. (http://www.cancercenter.com/community/survivors/peggy-kessler/) My prayers are with you both.

  31. Sue storton says:

    I am watching my brother die and it is horrendous . He has stopped eating and has starting drinking pop for the horrible taste in his mouth. He is a proud man who enjoyed life to the full. He was a big man but has lost over10 stone in a few months, January to be exact. Our hearts are breaking watching him suffer but he appears to have no pain now his drugs have kicked in. Watching our 91 year old mum try to do things for him and is loving wife carol taken the brunt of his anger at times is just to much. Why is god so cruel…

  32. Sue storton says:

    My brother is still very weak and not eating at all. A bed from the hospice is being delivered to ease his discomfort . He has started drinking pop for the horrible taste in his mouth. He is very unsteady on his feet and has had a fall. The end seems closer and he has started talking more more and seems more at peace. I love him dearly but watching him suffer so much is frightening for us all. We thought we had lost him last week as he was so ill and it would have been a blessing but he came back to us and is still suffering…..

  33. Britta Aragon says:

    Oh Sue, I am so very sorry. I felt the same types of emotions when my father was near the end. It taps all of our strength and more. The only thing I can say is to take advantage of the time to spend with your brother, and try not to take on too much yourself. Everyone has to carry their load of grief—take care of yourself, and trust that your sister-in-law and mom will do the same. Take advantage of the good moments your brother has, and remember that he is very fortunate to have so many people around him that love him. All my love to you.

  34. Britta Aragon says:

    I hope they can ease his pain, Sue. That is the important thing. Hang in there. You will get through this, and your brother will find peace.


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