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Signs of Dying from Cancer

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Although mortality rates are dropping, cancer is common enough that most people in the United States know someone who has had cancer in their lifetime.

However, not as much is known about cancer end-of-life signs, and what one should expect at the end. Furthermore, many are unaware of the ways in which hospice can help patients in dealing with the stages of death from cancer.

What are the stages of death from cancer?

While the stages of death are different for every cancer patient, and not everyone will experience the symptoms below, here is a general list of the stages and symptoms of death from cancer.

During the Final Weeks:

  • A Lost of Interest in Most Things/Inability to Concentrate: The patient may start to lose interest in things such as the news, entertainment, sports, etc., and may also be unable to concentrate or hold a conversation. Activities that used to interest the patient may now be of no interest. While this can be distressing to the family caregiver, it is not out of the ordinary in the final weeks of cancer.
  • Exhaustion, Weakness, and Desire to Sleep: The cancer patient may become much weaker and more easily exhausted during these last weeks. They may want to sleep often because of this, as well as spend most of their day in bed.
  • Loss of Appetite: They may lose much of their appetite or have difficulty eating and drinking.

During the Final Days:

  • Skin Cools or Changes Color: The patient’s skin may start to feel cold to the touch and may start to turn colors. The process of the skin changing color is known as “mottling.”
  • “Rattling Sounds”: You’ve likely heard of the phrase “Death Rattle.” This is something that occurs at the end of life and is caused by fluids in the person’s throat. This can affect his or her breathing. Breathing patterns may slow as well.
  • Incontinence: An inability to control one’s bladder and bowels at the end of life is another common symptom and sign that the end is near.
  • Confusion: The patient may be confused and delirious, including confusion regarding loved ones and close friends. If the patient is unable to recognize you, please understand that this is a symptom of the disease and nothing more.
  • Restlessness: Cancer patients frequently suffer from restlessness, but this is not necessarily a reaction to pain. However, it is best to speak with the healthcare professionals regarding this restlessness to determine if pain is the cause.

Tips for managing cancer end-of-life signs.

Even if not medically-trained, a family caregiver can provide comfort and care to their loved one as they begin to exhibit the signs of dying from cancer. For example, family caregivers can help cancer patients who are confused or delirious by answering their questions, listening to their concerns, and just by being present. If the patient shows no interest in doing anything, just sit with him or her. If the patient gets confused or angry, fight the natural instinct to become upset. The best thing you can do for your loved one is make this time easier in any way possible.

We also recommend speaking to the healthcare professionals, such as the patient’s primary care physician, regarding other ways in which you can help. Palliative care, for example, is designed to treat the symptoms and side-effects of cancer, which can help with many of these issues. There is no reason that your loved one should suffer more than he or she has to, even before it may become time to consider hospice care. Palliative care can be administered separate from hospice care.

What else you can do for your loved one.

Besides providing relief from the common cancer end-of-life symptoms, a family caregiver can provide both emotional and practical support at the end of life. This usually involves speaking to the patient about their financial plan, but should also include things like speaking to the patient about how they would like to spend their final days. Perhaps there is something they wish they could have done or seen. And perhaps there is some way you can help them make this dream a reality. You can also help them with planning a funeral, as well as speak to them about when they feel it is time to begin hospice care.

Learn about hospice eligibility & cancer.

If you have questions about the signs of dying from cancer, or about hospice eligibility for cancer patients, you can contact us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by choosing a selection from the blue Help Center bar above.

End-of-Life signs by disease.

Learn about the specific end-of-life signs of common diseases and illnesses:

More end-of-life resources.