When cancer is advanced

News that the person with cancer has advanced disease can be devastating and very frightening. It is worth remembering that, although the cancer may not be curable, there may be treatments that can slow the disease and/or help manage symptoms. You do not have to cope alone. There are services available to support you and the person with cancer. Even when cancer is not curable, palliative care services provide active treatments to control symptoms such as pain. As well as medical care, they may also provide practical, social and emotional support. 

Palliative care can be provided either in the home or in a health facility (such as a hospice) depending on the person with cancer’s needs, and the home environment.

Sometimes the person with advanced cancer can remain at home with some services. Sometimes hospital care such as a rest home or hospital will be suggested. Talk to the hospice team about this. Some hospitals can offer a ‘break’ for the supporter. The Ministry of Health has information on their website (http://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/life-stages/palliative-care). Talk to the hospice or palliative care team about what might be available.

The aim of palliative care is to help the person with cancer experience a good quality of life for as long as possible. An early referral to palliative care can help and allows you time to get to know the palliative care team. 

You are likely to have many concerns, such as dealing with practical issues and potential loss and grief. Further sources of information and support that may help you with these issues are available through the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237). You may like to read the Society’s booklet Advanced Cancer: A guide for people with advanced cancer. You can receive a copy at your local Cancer Society, by phoning the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) or you can read it online on our website.

Dealing with grief, loss and change

You may experience grief at changes, at loss of the future or at the prospect of someone dying. Many supporters experience grief all through the illness and before someone is dead. This can be normal. The grief experienced before a death does not make bereavement grief less intense or shorter.

If the person you care for dies

If the person you have been supporting dies, you may feel a range of emotions, including:

  • sadness
  • numbness and shock
  • anger towards the doctors or the hospital, your God or the deceased person for dying
  • relief that it’s over
  • guilt that you are thinking of yourself at this time.

All these reactions are common. Feeling relief or guilt is not a sign that you didn’t care. These emotions may come and go and change in intensity over time.

“I would find myself rehearsing the eulogy in the shower, and then feel terribly guilty. Talking to others at my support group helped me to realise my thinking was normal.” - Tony

What is grief like?

Grief is different for everyone. Reactions vary, but may include:

  • physical symptoms such as breathlessness, loss of appetite, crying and sleep problems
  • confusion, trouble concentrating or visions of the person who has died
  • a sense of disbelief
  • relief that it’s over.

Organisations such as Skylight (http://skylight.org.nz/), the hospital or palliative care services may have booklets on grief. Ask your healthcare team. Many public libraries have books on grief. Grief affects concentration: so a short booklet may be easier to read than a book.

For more information, read the Cancer Society’s booklet Talking About Grief and Loss: A guide for people dealing with the death of someone close. You can get a copy from your local Cancer Society, by phoning the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) or you can read it on our website.