Managing later stages of cancer

Coping day-to-day with advanced cancer can be an uncertain and worrying time, but you don’t have to cope on your own. Try talking to your doctor or nurse to find out what support is available in your area.

You might be worried about your treatment and how it will affect you. Or you may worry about practical things such as your work and finances. It can be helpful to find out more about your cancer and how to get the best from your cancer services.

Family members, friends or support groups can help provide emotional support. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help with practical tasks if you begin to feel overwhelmed.

It’s important to look after yourself. Remember to take any medicines you’ve been prescribed and try to eat as healthy a diet as you can. Staying physically active if you feel well enough can help to improve symptoms. Some people also use complementary therapies to help them cope.

Decisions about treatment

You can talk about your treatment options with your medical team and think about what feels right for you. It can be helpful to make a list of any questions you’d like to ask at your appointments. A friend or relative could also come with you for support.

If you have concerns about your treatment plan, you could get a second medical opinion. Ask your GP or specialist about how to do this.

You might be asked to take part in a clinical trial. This is a cancer research trial which can help doctors find better ways to treat cancer. You don’t have to take part but if you do, and later change your mind, you can leave at any time.

A question that many people want to ask is, ‘How long will I live?’. Doctors can’t be certain about this but will usually be able to give some guidance based on the type of cancer you have and your particular situation. You may prefer not to ask the question and that’s fine. It’s important to do what feels right for you.

Managing symptoms and side effects

Your doctors and nurses will ask about any symptoms or side effects that you may be experiencing. It’s important to talk to them about how you feel so that they can give you the right help.

When treatment is no longer controlling a cancer, doctors may focus on treating any troublesome symptoms. This is to help promote the best possible quality of life.

Not everyone experiences pain, but if you do, you can talk to your doctor about the best pain control plan for your situation. There are different medicines and methods of controlling pain. Your doctor or nurse can talk these through with you.

You might notice changes in your eating habits, such as loss of appetite or feeling sick. If you’re concerned about this, ask your doctor about seeing a dietitian. A dietitian will help you find ways to eat well.

Some people also find that that they get tired easily. You could try saving your energy for the things that you really want to do and give yourself plenty of time to rest. If you’re having difficulty sleeping, you could try breathing or relaxation exercises.

Who can help?

During your illness, the support that you need is likely to vary. You might be cared for at home, in hospital or in a hospice.

If you’re at home, your GP has overall responsibility for your care. Depending on your needs, you might be offered help from nurses who can visit you at home. Nurses can offer support in different ways such as practical help, advice on symptom control and emotional support. Other help may also be available from carers, home helps, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, or psychologists. Talk to you GP to find out what’s available in your area.

If you have troublesome symptoms, your GP may refer you to a hospice or palliative care unit in a hospital. Hospices are designed to be comfortable and relaxed. Some people only go in for short stays to help control their symptoms. And many hospices have day centres that people can visit once or twice a week if they wish.

At the end of life

Hearing that you may be reaching the end of your life can be very difficult. You may know that your illness is progressing, but it can still be a shock to know you may not have long to live. You may feel strong emotions and may find it hard to think clearly. You may want to be alone, or with close family or friends. People close to you will also be feeling shocked and upset. As time passes, these emotions usually lessen.

Planning to spend time with people you love and focusing on what is most important can help and may make this time special. You may also want to deal with practical issues, including decisions about treatment or making a will.

Talking openly and honestly to others can be very important. If you would find it easier to talk to people outside your family and friends, there are professionals and support organisations who can help. They can also provide support for your family and friends.