1. Health
Lynne Eldridge MD

Supporting a Loved One With Advanced Incurable Cancer

By September 28, 2009

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I know I have often felt helpless, wondering how to best support my loved ones and friends with incurable cancer. In our treatment-oriented society, when there isn’t a drug or procedure that will make a difference, what can we do? What are the greatest needs and concerns of our loved ones when treatment no longer works?


A recent study looked at just that question, addressing the needs of those living with advanced, incurable cancer. The greatest needs were psychological, and the need for medical information and communication.

The greatest specific concerns of those with advanced cancer were:

  • Fatigue/lack of energy
  • Coping with the fear of recurrence
  • Frustration with their inability to do things they were able to do in the past

Knowing this, what can you do to help support your loved one with advanced cancer?

  • Learn about your loved one’s cancer - Read about your loved one’s cancer, treatments that might be used to prolong survival, and ways to cope with the symptoms of advanced cancer such as pain and depression.

  • Ask Questions - When you go to the doctor with your loved one, bring a list of question and take notes. Make sure your loved one’s concerns are addressed. Too often I have heard cancer patients say they left questions unanswered because they didn’t want to “bother” a busy doctor.

  • Learn about cancer fatigue, and how it differs from just being tired - Check out What is Cancer Fatigue?

  • Allow your loved one to express their fears about their cancer progressing - We are often quick to offer hope – maybe a story of someone with terminal cancer who was miraculously cured – to those with advanced cancer. Sometimes we do so to make ourselves feel better rather than our loved one. Don’t leave your loved one alone to deal with thoughts of what will happen next, or what the dying process will be like.

  • Acknowledge your loved one’s frustration about their limitations - Find ways to help (or coordinate friends and family to help), but don’t “take over.” Allow your loved one to manage the tasks they are able to do alone, and praise their efforts.

Photo: istockphoto.com


Rainbird, K. et al. The needs of patients with advanced, incurable cancer. British Journal of Cancer. 2009. Aug 4. (Epub ahead of print).

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