Caring for someone with advanced cancer

Cancer patient sitting with a nurse

If your loved one is diagnosed with advanced cancer, it means that a cure is no longer possible. Instead treatment is to keep the cancer under control and relieve any symptoms.

Care to relieve symptoms is called palliative care.

Being diagnosed with advanced cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that your loved one will die soon. Some people live for a long time with advanced cancer, but it may take some time for them to adjust to living with advanced cancer.

The type of care your loved one needs will depend on how their cancer is affecting them. 

Emotional support

Some people with advanced cancer will need very little practical or medical support, especially early on in their illness or if their cancer is not affecting their daily lives too much.

But they may need emotional support and a listening ear to try to come to terms with their diagnosis. 

You might find our booklets Lost for Words – How to Talk to Someone with Cancer and Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer useful if you are giving emotional support to someone with advanced cancer:

Lost for words booklet
Lost for Words - How to talk to someone with cancer booklet
This booklet has been written to help you support someone close to you who has cancer.
Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer booklet
Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer - A guide for cancer patients booklet
This booklet has been written to help you understand more about the emotional effects of cancer. This booklet is for anyone affected by cancer.
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Every moment with him was precious. I was very close to him and we were able to talk to each other about his illness.

Mature couple laying in bed

Medical support 

Advanced cancer can cause side-effects that can be distressing and affect day-to-day life. For example, breathlessness, fatigue or pain. 

Ways that you can help to support with medical care: 

  • Learn about the causes of side-effects and the treatments that are available. This can help you to reassure your loved one and support them in getting the medical care that they need.
  • Encourage your loved one to tell their medical team about any side-effects so that they can get help.
  • Attend appointments with them so that the doctor can spot and treat any problems early.
  • Make sure they take any medications they are prescribed.
  • Ask your doctor or hospital team about how to get palliative care support. The palliative care team are experts at managing the symptoms of advanced cancer.
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Use the palliative home care team and night nurses, they are just unbelievable people and help to the family.

Service user, Irish Cancer Society Night Nursing
Night Nurse Mary

Planning ahead 

It’s very understandable that you might feel anxious or reluctant to talk to your loved one about how they might like to be looked after if their cancer progresses, for fear of upsetting yourself or them.

But some people find it puts their mind at rest to have medical plans in place and sort out legal and practical matters, even though they still hope to live for a long time. 

Planning ahead may include:

  • Deciding how they feel about different types of medical treatment, including if they might want to stop treatment at any stage or carry on for as long as possible.
  • Writing an advance care directive. This is where a person can write down their wishes about medical care. Doctors can use this if the person is not well enough to say what they want.
  • Picking someone to make medical decisions if they are not well enough (this person is called a ‘patient-designated healthcare representative’).
  • Making a will.
  • Thinking about any preferences about end-of-life care, such as whether they prefer to stay at home, if possible, or in a hospital or hospice. 
  • Your loved one may not wish to talk to you about these issues. They may prefer to talk to someone else who is not as emotionally involved with their care as you, such as a solicitor, GP, or a medical social worker. 

Planning ahead is useful for everyone, whether they have an illness or not.

More information on planning ahead 

Think Ahead is a booklet to help you plan, where you can fill in your personal, medical, financial and legal information and preferences. Go to www.thinkahead.ie to find out more.

If you want more information about planning ahead you could speak to the medical social worker at the hospital.

To talk to a cancer nurse in confidence about any aspect of planning ahead or about advanced cancer call our Cancer Nurseline on Freephone 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre.

Palliative care

Palliative care is care given to patients to improve their symptoms and quality of life. Many people are frightened when they hear the word 'palliative' because they think this means the patient will die soon.

Palliative care does include end-of-life care, but it is not just for people at the end of their lives.

The palliative care team are experts in helping patients and their loved ones cope with the emotional and physical effects of advanced cancer. Palliative care can be given in hospital or at home.

It's a good idea to ask about palliative care early on. Having the palliative care team involved early can mean symptoms are better controlled and potential problems kept in check. It also means you will have extra support at this difficult time. 

At home palliative care is given by the home care team. This is a team of nurses and doctors who can call to a patient at home and check their symptoms. For example, the home care team can control your loved one’s pain and make changes to their pain medicine if needed.

The home care team works closely with the GP and can be a useful support for your loved one and his or her carers.

The palliative care team in the hospital can also refer your loved one to the home care team.

For more on palliative care, see our frequently asked questions on palliative care. You can also speak to a cancer nurse by calling our Cancer Nurseline 1800 200 700 or by dropping into a Daffodil Centre.

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I questioned the palliative care nurses a lot when Dad was at home and in the hospice. I think Dad didn’t really ask the hard questions so I made it my business to get answers where I could.

Family and nurse gathered around dad in hospital bed

End-of-life care

As a carer, you may need to give end-of-life care to your loved one. This may be very difficult for you, both emotionally and practically.

It is hard to give end-of-life care on your own. It’s important to connect with services that can give you support.

Your GP is your first point of contact if your loved one needs care at home. Your GP can help you to organise the other services that you will need. For example, homecare nurses, the public health nurse and hospice care.

The Irish Cancer Society Night Nursing Service provides a night nurse for end-of-life care at home. The service is free and available for up to 10 nights. 

Our booklet, A Time to Care – Caring for a Loved One at Home, also has information and advice to support you. You can download it below or get a free copy at a Daffodil Centre or by calling our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700.

A Time to Care booklet
A Time to Care - Caring for someone seriously ill at home booklet
This booklet is to help you if you want to care for a seriously ill family member or friend at home.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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