Even with the best treatment, a cure for cancer might not be possible. If cancer does not respond to treatment and continues to grow, doctors talk about advanced, terminal, or end-stage cancer. This is a difficult diagnosis. But there are steps you can take to prepare yourself and your family for your final days.
Grieve for what you are losing
If you are living with advanced cancer, it is normal to feel many different emotions. You may feel things you do not expect. Know that your feelings are completely normal.
It is important to let yourself feel these emotions and grieve for what you are losing. You might feel some or all of the following emotions:
You may also experience anxiety or depression when you have advanced cancer. While these feelings are normal, your health care team can help you cope with them. They may be able to recommend a counselor who has experience working with people with advanced cancer or prescribe medication to help. Many people also find that talking about their feelings and concerns with family, friends, and caregivers is comforting. Learn more about grief and loss.
Putting your personal affairs in order
Talking about dying is hard. However, it is wise to put your personal, financial, and legal affairs in order. Planning ahead, and getting help if needed, helps you spend more quality time with your loved ones and can bring you peace of mind.
First, think about the type of care you want toward the end of your life and share your wishes with your family and health care team. It helps to start thinking about this early. You can always change your plans if your situation changes or you decide on something else.
You or your family should find and organize important legal and financial papers. These may include:
Marriage and birth certificates
Social Security card
Insurance policies, bank statements, and investment summaries
If your finances are complicated, consider talking with a financial advisor. If you are concerned about leaving your family with high medical bills or debts, a medical social worker can help. They can work with you to create a plan that reduces stress on you and your family. Your health care team can help you find a medical social worker.
Using advance directives
It is important to create or update your advance directives. Do this as early as possible. This gives you more time to talk with your family and make sure they understand your wishes.
There are 2 kinds of advanced directives:
Durable health care power of attorney. This means choosing someone to make health care decisions for you if you cannot. This person may also be called a health care proxy, agent, or surrogate. It is important to choose someone you trust. Be sure to involve the person you choose in the decision so they feel comfortable.
Living will. This is a document about the medical treatments that you do or do not want at the end of your life.
Some people take comfort in helping loved ones plan their funeral or memorial service. You can write out instructions, record them on your phone, or talk about them with loved ones.
Meeting personal goals
As you get closer to the end of your life, you may want to meet some personal goals. This can help your life feel meaningful and complete to you. For example, you might want to:
Travel somewhere you have dreamed of going
Connect with old friends or relatives
Read a favorite book again or see a favorite movie
Spend time with people who are important to you
Attend a special event
You may also want to find peace in important relationships. This may include resolving conflicts, saying goodbye to special people, and telling family members how much you love them. If you cannot or prefer not to talk in person, consider writing, calling, video chatting, or sending a message through a family member.
Remember that some people may not respond the way you hope they will. They might not feel comfortable visiting, or they may be afraid of saying the wrong thing. You should feel comfort that you did your best to heal a relationship or connect with them.
Reflecting on your life
Consider taking time to think back over your life. You can celebrate goals you have met, people you have loved, and events that made you who you are.
Talk with your family and friends about times you have spent together. You will be honoring your life together and making new memories for them to cherish.
Stories can be a gift to the people you leave behind. As you review your life, you may want to write down or record your memories. Or you can ask someone else to write or record as you talk. Sharing your wishes and dreams for loved ones may help ease your regrets about leaving them. It can also help them connect with you at important times in their lives. For young children, consider making them videos and photo albums that remind them of your love and connection.
Finding spiritual peace
If religion or spirituality is important to you, your faith and/or spiritual community may be a source of comfort now. You may want to spend some time with a faith leader, such as a chaplain, to talk about your life, faith, and what lies ahead.
You might find spiritual comfort through nature or outside of a traditional faith community. Think about where you might find spiritual peace. For example, maybe you want to spend some time in nature at a favorite park. Ask friends or family to help you.
Spiritual experiences can bring you comfort, meaning, and peace. They can also give you a sense that your life is complete. Research shows that people who receive spiritual support have a better quality of life in their final days. If you need help finding this type of support, please ask your health care team.
It can be difficult to cope with an advanced cancer diagnosis and planning end of life care. But you are not alone. Your family, friends, caregivers, and health care team can help. You may also want to find additional support. Here are some other resources that can help you or connect you with other people who have the same diagnosis:
The Advanced Cancer section on this website offers additional suggestions for what to do when you or a loved one have been diagnosed with advanced cancer
An online community can be a good way to connect with other people with advanced cancer and their families
A national, not-for-profit organization specific to the type of cancer you have
The Conversation Project helps people start difficult conversations with their loved ones about the end of life