Last Days of Life (PDQ®)
Topics in This Section
- Managing Symptoms
- Ethical Issues
- Care in the Final Hours
- Grief and Loss
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Thinking about and planning for the end-of-life can be a difficult time for patients and their families. Each person will have unique needs and will cope in different ways. This time is easier when patients, families, and health care providers talk openly about end-of-life plans. For many patients and their families, this can be a time of personal growth. These events often give people the chance to find out more about themselves and appreciate what is most important to them.
This summary discusses care during the last days and last hours of life, including treatment of common symptoms and ethical questions that may come up. It may help patients and their families prepare for the kinds of decisions that may be needed during this time.
This summary is about end-of-life in adults with cancer and where noted, children with cancer.
When treatment choices and plans are discussed before the last days of life, it can lower the stress on both the patient and the family. Knowing the patient's wishes can help make it easier for family members to make major decisions for the patient during a very emotional time. It is most helpful if end-of life planning and decision-making begin soon after diagnosis and continue during the course of the disease. Having these decisions in writing can make the patient's wishes clear to both the family and the health care team. When it is a child who is terminally ill, having these discussions with the child's doctor may reduce the time the child spends in the hospital and help the parents feel more prepared for the child's end of life.
End-of-life planning usually includes making choices about the following:
- The goals of care (for example, whether to use certain medicines during the last days of life).
- Where the patient wants to spend his or her final days.
- Which treatments for end-of-life care the patient wishes to receive.
- What type of palliative care and hospice care the patient wishes to receive.
The goal of palliative care is to improve the patient's and the family's quality of life by preventing and relieving suffering. This includes treating physical symptoms such as pain, and dealing with emotional, social, and spiritual concerns. Palliative care is offered in some hospitals, outpatient centers, and in the home.
When palliative treatment is given at the end of life, care is taken to make sure the patient's wishes about treatments he or she wants to receive are followed.
Hospice is a program that gives care to people who are near the end of life and have stopped treatment to cure or control their cancer. Hospice care is usually meant for patients who are not expected to live longer than six months. Hospice care focuses on quality of life rather than length of life. The goal of hospice is to help patients live each day to the fullest by making them comfortable and relieving their symptoms. This may include palliative care to control pain and other symptoms so the patient can be as alert and comfortable as possible. Services to help and support the emotional, social, and spiritual needs of patients and their families are also an important part of hospice care.
Hospice programs are designed to keep a patient at home with family and friends, but hospice programs also provide services in hospice centers and in some hospitals and nursing home facilities. The hospice team includes doctors, nurses, spiritual advisors, social workers, nutritionists, and volunteers. Team members are specially trained on issues that occur at the end-of-life. After the patient's death, the hospice program continues to offer support, including grief or bereavement counseling.
Common symptoms at the end of life include pain, feeling very tired, coughing, shortness of breath, rattle, delirium, and fever. Bleeding may also occur.
In the last days, a patient may not be able to swallow pain medicine. When patients cannot take medicines by mouth, the pain medicine may be given by placing it under the tongue or into the rectum, by injection or infusion, or by placing a patch on the skin. These methods can be used at home with a doctor's order.
Opioid analgesics work very well to relieve pain and are commonly used at the end of life. Some patients worry that the use of opioids may cause death to occur sooner, but studies have shown no link between opioid use and early death.
(See the PDQ summary on Pain for more information about opioids.)
Myoclonic jerks are sudden muscle twitches or jerks that cannot be controlled by the person having them. A hiccup is one type of myoclonic jerk. Myoclonic jerking often occurs in the arms or legs. Taking very high doses of an opioid for a long time may cause this side effect, but it can have other causes as well. In patients taking opioids, it may begin with jerking movements that happen once in a while and then begin to happen more often. Rarely, there is constant jerking of different muscle groups all over the body.
When opioids are the cause of myoclonic jerking, changing to another opioid may help. Different patients respond to opioids in different ways and certain opioids may be more likely than others to cause myoclonic jerking in some people.
When the patient is very near death, medicine to stop the myoclonic jerking may be given instead of changing the opioid. When myoclonic jerking is severe, drugs may be used to calm the patient down, relieve anxiety, and help the patient sleep.
Fatigue (feeling very tired) can have many causes at the end of life. These include physical and mental changes and side effects of treatments. Drugs that increase brain activity, alertness, attention, and energy may be helpful. (See the PDQ summary on Fatigue for more information.)
Shortness of breath or not being able to catch your breath is often caused by advanced cancer. Other causes include the following:
- Build-up of fluid in the abdomen.
- Loss of muscle strength.
- Hypoxemia (a condition in which there is not enough oxygen in the blood).
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Very low doses of an opioid may relieve shortness of breath in patients who are not taking opioids for pain. Higher doses may be needed in patients who are taking opioids for pain or who have severe shortness of breath.
Other methods that may help patients who feel short of breath include the following:
- Treating anxiety caused by shortness of breath.
- Directing a cool fan towards the patient’s face.
- Having the patient sit up.
- Having the patient do breathing and relaxation exercises, if able.
- Using acupuncture or acupressure.
- Giving antibiotics if shortness of breath is caused by an infection.
- Giving extra oxygen if shortness of breath is caused by hypoxemia.
In rare cases, shortness of breath may not be relieved by any of these treatments. Sedation with drugs may be needed, to help the patient feel more comfortable.
Some patients have spasms of the air passages in the lungs along with shortness of breath. Bronchodilators (drugs that open up small airways in the lungs) or steroid drugs (which relieve swelling and inflammation) may relieve these spasms.
Chronic coughing at the end of life may add to a patient's discomfort. Repeated coughing can cause pain and loss of sleep, increase tiredness, and make shortness of breath worse. At the end of life, the decision may be to treat the symptoms of the cough rather than finding and treating the cause. The following types of drugs may be used to make the patient as comfortable as possible:
- Opioids to stop the coughing.
- Corticosteroids to shrink swollen lymph vessels.
- Antibiotics to treat infection.
- Bronchodilators to decrease wheezing and coughing from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
- Diuretics to relieve coughing caused by congestive heart failure.
Also, the doctor may look at drugs the patient is already taking, as some drugs (such as ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure or heart failure) can cause cough.
(See the PDQ summary on Cardiopulmonary Syndromes for more information.)
Rattle occurs when saliva or other fluids build up in the throat and airways in a patient who is too weak to clear the throat. There are two types of rattle. Death rattle is caused by saliva pooling at the back of the throat. The other kind of rattle is caused by fluid in the airways from an infection, a tumor, or excess fluid in body tissues.
Drugs may be given to decrease the amount of saliva in the mouth or to dry the upper airway. Since most patients with rattle are unable to swallow, these drugs are usually given in patches on the skin or by infusion.
Raising the head of the bed, propping the patient up with pillows, or turning the patient to either side may help relieve rattle. If the rattle is caused by fluid at the back of the throat, excess fluid may be gently removed from the mouth using a suction tube. If the rattle is caused by fluid in the airways, the fluid is usually not removed by suction. Suctioning causes severe physical and mental stress on the patient.
At the end of life, the body needs less food and fluid. Reducing food and fluids can lessen the excess fluid in the body and greatly relieve rattle.
Death rattle is a sign that death may occur in hours or days. Rattle can be very upsetting for those at the bedside. It does not seem to be painful for the patient.
Delirium is common during the final days of life. Some patients may be confused, nervous, and restless, and have hallucinations (see or hear things not really there). Other patients may be quiet and withdrawn. (See the PDQ summary on Cognitive Disorders and Delirium for more information.)
Delirium can be caused by the direct effects of cancer, such as a growing tumor in the brain. Other causes include the following:
- A higher- or lower-than-normal amount of certain chemicals in the blood that keep the heart, kidneys, nerves, and muscles working the way they should.
- Side effects of drugs or drug interactions (changes in the way a drug acts in the body when taken with certain other drugs, herbal medicine, or foods).
- Stopping the use of certain drugs or alcohol.
- Dehydration (the loss of needed water from the body).
- A full bladder or constipation.
- Shortness of breath.
Depending on the cause of the delirium, treatment may include the following:
- Giving drugs to fix the level of certain chemicals in the blood.
- Stopping or lowering the dose of the drugs that are causing delirium.
- Stopping drugs that may cause drug interactions but are no longer useful at the end of life, such as drugs to lower cholesterol.
- Treating dehydration by putting fluids into the bloodstream.
For some patients in the last hours of life, the decision may be to treat only the symptoms of delirium and make the patient as comfortable as possible. There are drugs that work very well to relieve these symptoms.
It is common for dying patients to have hallucinations that include loved ones who have already died. It is normal for family members to feel distress when these hallucinations occur. Speaking with clergy, the hospital chaplain, or other religious advisors is often helpful.
Fever and infections are common at the end-of-life. Because patients often have many medical problems at the end of life, it can be hard to know the cause of a fever and if treatment will help the patient. Patients near the end of life may choose not to treat the cause of the fever but only to receive comfort measures, such as acetaminophen.
Hemorrhage (a lot of bleeding in a short time) is rare but may occur in the last hours or minutes of life. Blood vessels may be damaged by certain cancers or cancer treatments. Radiation therapy, for example, can weaken blood vessels in the area that was treated. Tumors can also damage blood vessels. Patients with the following conditions are at risk for this symptom:
- Head and neck cancers.
- Stomach cancer.
- Esophageal cancer.
- Leukemias and other blood cancers.
- Blood clotting disorders.
The patient should talk with the doctor about any concerns he or she has about the chance of hemorrhage.
When hemorrhage occurs during cancer care, it is treated with bandages and medicines or with treatments such as radiation therapy, surgery, and blood transfusions. When sudden bleeding occurs at the end of life, however, patients usually die soon afterwards. Resuscitation (restarting the heart) usually will not work. The main goal of care is to help the patient be calm and comfortable and to support family members. If hemorrhage occurs, it can be very upsetting for family members. It is helpful if the family talks about the feelings this causes and asks questions about it.
The following steps can be taken when bleeding occurs in the last hours of life:
- Cover the area with dark-colored towels so the blood is not seen.
- Change towels and keep the area clean.
- Speak calmly to the patient and to family members.
- Let the patient know if loved ones are there.
Fast-acting drugs may help calm the patient during this time.
In addition to decisions about treating symptoms at the end-of-life, it is also helpful for patients to decide if and when they want this treatment to stop. A patient may wish to receive all possible treatments, only some treatments, or no treatment at all. These decisions may be written down ahead of time in an advance directive, such as a living will. Advance directive is the general term for different types of legal documents that describe the treatment or care a patient wishes to receive or not receive when he or she is no longer able to speak their wishes.
The patient may also name a healthcare proxy to make these decisions when he or she becomes unable to do so. Having advance directives in place makes it easier for family members and caregivers when very important decisions have to be made in the last days, such as whether to give nutrition support, restart the heart, help with breathing, or give sedatives.
When the patient does not make choices about end-of-life care, or does not share his choices with family members, health care proxies, or the health care team, treatment may be given near death against the patient's wishes. As a result, studies show that the patient's quality of life may be worse and the family's grieving process may be more difficult.
Studies have shown that cancer patients who have end-of-life discussions with their doctors choose to have fewer procedures, such as resuscitation or the use of a ventilator. They are also less likely to be in intensive care, and the cost of their health care is lower during their final week of life. Reports from their caregivers show that these patients live as long as patients who choose to have more procedures and that they have a better quality of life in their last days.
Nutrition support can improve health and boost healing during cancer treatment. The goals of nutrition therapy for patients during the last hours of life are different from the goals for patients in active cancer treatment and recovery. In the final days of life, patients often lose the desire to eat or drink and may refuse food or fluids that are offered to them. Also, procedures used to put feeding tubes in place and problems that can occur with these types of feedings may be hard on a patient.
The goal of end-of-life care is to prevent suffering and relieve symptoms. If nutrition support causes the patient more discomfort than help, then nutrition support near the end of life may be stopped. The needs and best interests of each patient guide the decision to give nutrition support. When decisions and plans about nutrition support are made by the patient, doctors and family members can be sure they are doing what the patient wants.
If the patient cannot swallow, two types of nutrition support are commonly used:
- Enteral nutrition uses a tube inserted into the stomach or intestine.
- Parenteral nutrition uses an intravenous (IV) catheter inserted into a vein.
Each type of nutrition support has benefits and risks. (See the PDQ summary on Nutrition in Cancer Care for more information.)
An important decision for the patient to make is whether to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) (trying to restart the heart and breathing when it stops). It is best if patients talk with their family, doctors, and caregivers about their wishes for CPR as early as possible (for example, when being admitted to the hospital or when active cancer treatment is stopped). A do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order is written by a doctor to tell other health professionals not to perform CPR at the moment of death, so that the natural process of dying occurs. If the patient wishes, he or she can ask the doctor to write a DNR order. The patient can ask that the DNR order be changed or removed at any time.
A ventilator is a machine that helps patients breathe. Sometimes, using a ventilator will not improve the patient's condition, but will keep the patient alive longer. If the goal of care is to help the patient live longer, a ventilator may be used, according to the patient's wishes. If ventilator support stops helping the patient or is no longer what the patient wants, the patient, family, and health care team may decide to turn the ventilator off.
Some patients may want to be allowed to die when breathing gets difficult or stops. It is important for the patient to tell family members and health care providers, before breathing becomes difficult, of his or her wishes about being kept alive with a ventilator.
Family members will be given information about how the patient may respond when the ventilator is removed and about pain relief or sedation to keep the patient comfortable. Family members will be given time to contact other loved ones who wish to be there. Chaplains or social workers may be called to give help and support to the family.
The decision whether to sedate a patient at the end of life is a difficult one. Sedation may be considered for a patient's comfort or for a physical condition such as uncontrolled pain. Palliative sedation may be temporary. A patient's thoughts and feelings about end-of-life sedation may depend greatly on his or her own culture and beliefs. Some patients who become anxious facing the end of life may want to be sedated. Other patients may wish to have no procedures, including sedation, just before death.
It is important for the patient to tell family members and health care providers of his or her wishes about sedation at the end of life. When patients make their wishes about sedation known ahead of time, doctors and family members can be sure they are doing what the patient would want. Families may need support from the health care team and mental health professionals while palliative sedation is used.
Most people are not familiar with the signs that death is near. Knowing what to expect can prepare them for the death of their loved one and make this time less stressful and confusing. Health care providers can give family members information about the changes they may see in their loved one in the final hours and how they may help their loved one through it.
In the final days to hours of life, patients often lose the desire to eat or drink, and may refuse food and fluids that are offered to them. The family may give ice chips or swab the mouth and lips to keep them moist. Forcing food and fluids can make the patient uncomfortable or cause choking. Family members may find other ways to show their love for the patient, such as massage.
Patients may withdraw and spend more time sleeping. They may answer questions slowly or not at all, seem confused, and show little interest in their surroundings. Most patients are still able to hear after they are no longer able to speak. It may give some comfort if family members continue to touch and talk to the patient, even if the patient does not respond.
Some of the following physical changes may occur in the patient at the end of life:
- The patient may feel tired or weak.
- The patient may pass less urine and it may be dark in color.
- The patient’s hands and feet may become blotchy, cold, or blue. Caregivers can use blankets to keep the patient warm. Electric blankets or heating pads should not be used.
- The heart rate may go up or down and become irregular.
- Blood pressure usually goes down.
- Breathing may become irregular, with very shallow breathing, short periods of not breathing, or deep, rapid breathing.
After the patient dies, family members and caregivers may wish to stay with the patient a while. There may be certain customs or rituals that are important to the patient and family at this time. These might include rituals for coping with death, handling the patient's body, making final arrangements for the body, and honoring the death. The patient and family members should let the health care team know about any customs or rituals they want performed after the patient's death.
Health care providers, hospice staff, social workers, or spiritual leaders can explain the steps that need to be taken once death has occurred, including contacting a funeral home.
(See the PDQ summary on Spirituality in Cancer Care for more information.)
Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one. People who feel unable to cope with their loss may be helped by grief counseling or grief therapy with trained professionals. (See the PDQ summary on Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss for more information.)
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