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What Everyone Should Know About Terminal Cancer

What Everyone Should Know About Terminal Cancer


There are many truths in this world but there is one that stands above all others. That absolute fact is that every man, woman and child alive on the planet today will one day meet their end. Just as day follows night or thunder follows lightning, it is going to happen. Dying is as much a part of life as being born.

As we continue to barrel through the 21st century, one of the most common causes of death in the developed world is terminal cancer. Whether living in a modern world has resulted in an increased in the rate of terminal cancers or advances in medical technology have resulted in an greatly increased ability to identify and diagnose terminal cancer is a legitimate debate. However, this question isn’t an important one for the purposes of this article.

What is Terminal Cancer?

To explain what a terminal cancer is, we first need to know what constitutes a terminal illness. A terminal illness can be described as an illness or disease from which the patient is not expected to recover.

Terminal cancer is a specific type of terminal illness. Any terminal cancer definition can be refined to include some additional information. Having a terminal cancer means a patient with the disease is expected to pass away as a result of the cancer in a short period of time, usually one week to a few months. Another common component to a terminal cancer diagnoses is all treatment and surgery options have been exhausted.

Facts and Figures

From the American Cancer Society:

  • In 2013, of 580,000 cancer deaths were reported in the United States alone
  • Lung cancer accounted for over 25 percent of deaths in both men and women
  • Over 1.6 million new cases of cancer were expected in the US with prostate (men) and breast (women) being the most prevalent
  • African American men have the highest cancer death rate, Asian/Pacific Island women have the lowest cancer death rate in the US
  • 1 of every 3 men and 1 of every 2 women will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime

From the World Health Organization:

  • Over 8.2 million people died of cancer worldwide in 2012
  • Using tobacco is the biggest risk factor for developing any type of cancer. Tobacco use caused over 20 percent of cancer deaths and about 70 percent of lung cancer deaths worldwide
  • It is estimated that yearly cancer cases will increase from 14 million in 2012 to 22 million within 20 years.


In the years 2003 – 2009, the deadliest types of cancer by percentage of patients deceased within 5 years following diagnosis: are:

  1. Pancreatic cancer – 94 percent
  2. Liver cancer – 83.9 percent
  3. Lung cancer – 83.4 percent
  4. Esophageal cancer – 82.7 percent
  5. Stomach cancer – 72.3 percent
  6. Brain cancer – 66.5 percent
  7. Ovarian cancer – 55.8 percent
  8. Leukemia – 44 percent
  9. Laryngeal cancer – 39.4 percent
  10. Oral cancer – 37.8 percent

Terminal Cancer Symptoms

While the signs and symptoms of terminal cancer will obviously vary depending on the type of cancer, the following list contains a few symptoms that are common to most.

  • Fatigue – Cancer-related fatigue is usually defined as unusual and near constant felling of extreme tiredness. It is usually more severe than tiredness healthy individuals feel every day. Many with cancer feel that fatigue is the most distressing symptom of their disease. It’s also extremely common with advanced cancers.
  • Pain – Pain associated with cancer can range from being an annoyance to being debilitating. Chronic pain can cause irritability, poor sleep, decreased appetite and decreased concentration. Pain in terminal cancer patients can usually be well managed with medication
  • Changes in Appetite – As cancer progresses it is not unusual for the patient’s activity level to decrease. The body needs fewer calories to support the reduced activity level and the appetite for food also decreases. Pain and medication can also result in a loss of appetite and weight loss.
  • Breathing Problems – Problems with breathing or shortness of breath is also a very common symptom in terminal cancer patients. Like pain, it can also be well managed with the proper medication or combination of medications.

Resources for Terminal Cancer Patient

The reactions of people that have been diagnosed with terminal cancer can be as varied as the different types of cancer. There are no ‘one size fits all’ words of advice for those diagnosed as terminally ill. It is extremely likely however that a terminal cancer patient will have many questions about their illness following the diagnoses.

The primary oncologist is more often than not the most immediate resource for the patient and should be more than willing to answer any questions that may arise. However, questions usually arise after the patient has left the doctor’s office. Fortunately there are many resources available for the patient that can be accessed at their convenience and in the privacy of their own home.

Once such resource for terminal cancer patients is the National Cancer Institute, the National Cancer Institute publishes a website at This website is filled with information for the support and care of terminally ill patients.

The websites includes links to factsheets for end of life care, home health and hospice care and psychological stress caused by cancer just to name a few.

Another resource found on the internet and becoming increasingly popular with those with terminal cancer are weblogs, – or blogs. Many patients find comfort is sharing their stories with others in the same situation, supporting others with a terminal illness, keeping up to date with the latest treatment and/or drugs or just staying in touch. A terminal cancer blog is one method for the patient to regain a measure of control over their life.

Advice for Friends and Loved Ones of a Terminal Cancer Patient

Friends and families of loved ones are also forced to cope with difficult, delicate and sometimes awkward situations as the cancer runs its course in the patient.

Again, the same advice will not be right in every situation and every situation will have unique challenges. The best advice for friends or family is to have an open and honest discussion with the patient or the spouse, significant other, closet relative, etc. to determine if, how and when the topic of the patient’s illness should be discussed.

There are some common sense ideas for friends and loved ones trying to cope with a terminally ill patient that can be applied in most cases. These include:

  • Lean on sympathetic friends and family members. If someone you know has gone through a similar situation, ask for advice.
  • Attend a support group meeting or join an online support group.
  • Read books and articles that may be pertinent to your situations to find advice or topics of conversation.
  • Discuss your concerns or questions with caregivers who are have experience caring for terminal cancer patients.
  • Ask a doctor to help
  • Seek spiritual guidance, if appropriate

There are also many websites that are set up to help friends and family of the dying deal with their emotions, questions, etc.

As mentioned earlier in the article, the National Cancer Institute ( is an excellent resource for friends and family of the dying. It contains many articles and links to other sites for practically any subject or question relating to terminally illness.

Depression and the Terminally Ill Cancer Patient

Terminally ill patients are dealing with must be unreal physical and psychological stresses. Depression can often cause a patient’s discomfort and pain to increase as the cancer progress towards the end of life. Some, patients will attempt to shrug off symptoms of depression as a normal part of their illness and may even avoid discussing it with the doctor.

Some doctors are not trained to recognize depression or may not wish to treat the condition with medication for fear of possible side effects of antidepressant medications.

Left untreated, depression will probably reduce the quality of the time a patient may have left and could even result in a quicker than necessary death in a terminally ill patient.

The American College of Physicians has recommended doctors regularly check terminal patients for depression and to focus on suicidal thoughts, among other things.

Treating depression in the dying patient should contribute positively to the physical and emotional comfort of patients.

Options for treating depression in the terminal cancer patient can include one or all of:

  • Counseling
  • Psychotherapy
  • Medication

Untreated depression can increase the risk of suicide. This is especially true for terminally ill older men.


It is extremely unlikely that a diagnosis of terminal cancer, in whatever form it may take, will ever be a cause for celebration.

Facing the end of life will lead to seemingly endless questions and emotions. These questions and feelings are not exclusive to the terminal cancer patient. Family, friends and even caregivers will be affected by the diagnosis in many different ways.

As is often the case, knowledge can help overcome fear, particular fear of the unknown. There is a wealth of free information and advice available online to the terminal cancer patient and others affected by the disease.

In the darkest of times, may there be some comfort in the knowledge that there are answers to your questions.

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