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Last Days of Life (PDQ®)

Overview

The end of life may be months, weeks, days, or hours. It is a time when many decisions about treatment and care are made for patients with cancer. It is important for families and healthcare providers to know the patient's wishes ahead of time and to talk with the patient openly about end-of-life plans. This will help make it easier for family members to make major decisions for the patient at the end of life.

When treatment choices and plans are discussed before the end of life, it can lower the stress on both the patient and the family. It is most helpful if end-of life planning and decision-making begin soon after the cancer is diagnosed 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 healthcare team.

When a child is terminally ill, end-of-life discussions with the child's doctor may reduce the time the child spends in the hospital and help the parents feel more prepared.

This summary is about end of life in adults with cancer and where noted, children with cancer. It 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 decisions that they need to make during this time.

See the PDQ summary on Planning the Transition to End-of-Life Care in Advanced Cancer for more information on end-of-life planning, including palliative and hospice care.

  • Updated: April 17, 2015