Cancer: end of life care

Information on coping with a terminal cancer diagnosis, including advice on counselling, practical issues and financial help.

There isn't any universal advice on how to come to terms with a life-threatening illness. 

Each person will deal with their situation in their own way. Some people take on activities and challenges. Others prefer to spend their time quietly with family, friends or on their own.

A terminal diagnosis is an overwhelming shock for most people and their families. Even if you're surrounded by people who care about you, you may find it difficult to cope.

Where to get end of life support with cancer

Cancer charities

Organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support have cancer helplines. Specialist cancer nurses provide information about cancer, its treatments, practical advice and support. Call Macmillan free on 0808 808 00 00. You can also get information and support from Marie Curie Cancer Care.

Counselling services

Depending on where you live, you may have access to free therapy. A health professional such as your GP, cancer specialist or healthcare worker can refer you for therapy.

Your doctor or cancer specialist may be able to recommend a suitable therapist. To find a therapist in your area, go to the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy website.

If you live in London, you could be referred to the Nafsiyat Intercultural Therapy Centre  an organisation that specialises in therapy for people from ethnic minorities.

Hospices

Hospices can offer treatment of physical symptoms, psychological and spiritual support, and bereavement care. They can also provide a wide range of other services, including complementary therapies such as acupuncture or massage, art and music therapy, and beauty treatments.

Find end of life care and hospices near you.

Hospices can care for people in their own home or in a hospice building or care home. Their services are usually free.

For an example of what hospice care is like, read about life at the Hospice of St Francis, or find out about hospice care in general.  

Self-help groups

These groups unite people in similar situations who can share experiences and offer support to one another. It's often helpful to speak to people outside the family who are going through the same experience as you.

The Macmillan Cancer Support website can help you find a self-help group in your area.

Practical considerations

You may want to think about putting your affairs in order. "More and more people are planning how they want to be buried and taking care of their finances, because they don't want their families to be burdened with it after they've gone," says Stuart Danskin, senior cancer information nurse at Macmillan.

Making a will could be the most positive thing you can do for your family. Anyone who's dependent on you could face financial difficulties if you die without making a will (known as "intestate"). The best way to make a will is through a solicitor, which helps to prevent any legal problems arising later on.

Some people have clear views about their treatment or care. The Mental Capacity Act gives you several ways to prepare for the future, either by setting out certain decisions in advance or by letting people know what you'd like to happen if you lose the capacity to make decisions.    

You can also write down or tell people your wishes and preferences for your future treatment or care. This is not legally binding in the same way as an advance decision to refuse treatment, which allows you to make a decision now about which treatments you don't want to have in the future. However, health professionals must take them into account when considering your treatment.

These preferences can be about anything, including treatment, things that are important to you (such as dietary preferences if you're a vegetarian), or personal preferences (such as wanting to sleep with the light on). You can also tell people your wishes about your funeral.

You can appoint someone to make decisions for you in the future, and one or more attorneys to make decisions about financial matters or your health and personal welfare, or both. This is called making a lasting power of attorney.

Usha Grieve, spokesperson for end of life charity Compassion in Dying, says: "We advise our service users to record their wishes for end-of-life care and provide them free advice and forms to do so. Planning ahead gives peace of mind for you and those close to you, and puts you in control of your care and treatment."

Compassion in Dying run a free info line on 0800 999 2434 and a website where people can get free support with planning ahead.

Getting financial help

Macmillan offers advice on help with prescription costs, travel to hospital, childcare and many things people do not immediately think of. Call Macmillan free on 0808 808 0000.

More information on end of life care

For more information on end of life care, including sources of support, making the most of the time you have, your rights and choices, bereavement, pain relief and where you can die, see the end of life care guide.

You can also watch videos of people talking about their own experiences of end of life care and living with a terminal illness on the living with dying section of Healthtalk. Find cancer support services near you.

Videos

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