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