Cancer: End-of-Life Issues for the Caregiver

Dealing with the last stages of a loved one’s cancer is hard. It can be physically, emotionally, and mentally painful for you, your family, and your loved one. Planning for certain issues in advance can help ease the burden. Ideally, you should make these decisions with your loved one, if they are able to participate. It helps you know their wishes and gives them a sense of control. It provides some relief so that you are not making all of the decisions. Preparing allows you to be more present with your loved one in the final days.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recognizes that patients should have access to palliative care and/or hospice care in the last 6 months of their life.

Path to well being

As a caregiver, there are a lot of things to consider. Below are some end-of-life issues to discuss and plan with your loved one.

Palliative care

Palliative care is a service you can choose for your loved one. Instead of trying to cure cancer, it provides relief of pain and symptoms. It also provides emotional, mental, and spiritual support. The focus of palliative care is on living each day as fully as possible. A number of people can be involved in this care. These can include members of the health care team, family, friends, and a counselor or spiritual advisor. Palliative care can take place in a home, hospital, or hospice setting.

Hospice care

Hospice care is another type of service for people who have cancer. It focuses on a holistic approach. Care members from different areas provide relief, comfort, support, and instruction. Hospice care often includes around-the-clock medical staff. Hospice care can take place at home or in a nursing home.

Medical and legal issues

Advance directives are instructions on what kind of care your loved one wishes to receive. Talk to your loved one about their requests. Then, work with a lawyer to create the documents. Follow the directives once your loved one is no longer able to make medical decisions. Types of directives include:

  • living will
  • power of attorney
  • do-not-resuscitate (DNR)
  • organ donation.

Financial and legal issues

An accountant or lawyer can help sort through financial and legal issues. These may include your loved one’s insurance policies, bank accounts, or will. Ask your loved one where to find important documents and items. Examples are credit cards, account information, car titles, and mortgages.

Funeral arrangements

Perhaps the hardest part of this process is planning your loved one’s funeral. Talk with your loved one about their preferences. They may want a cremation or burial. They may want a public memorial or a private one. You can discuss budget depending on who is covering the costs. If your loved one wants a memorial service, you can talk about the arrangements. For example, they may want certain readings, prayers, or songs. They may want certain people to talk, preach, or carry the casket. Don’t feel that any detail is too small to discuss. You also can talk about what to include in their obituary or if they want donations.

When selecting a funeral provider, be sure to compare prices, services, and payment options. It will be easier to do this sooner rather than later. There will be less pressure and fewer distractions. Funeral laws vary by state. Research what is required and what is optional.

Things to consider

Being a caregiver may require you to miss some work. You may need time off before and/or after your loved one passes. Learn what your employer’s policies are for bereavement and family medical leave (FMLA).

Talk to your loved one about any other dying wishes or requests. They may want a final visit from family or friends. If they are spiritual or religious, they may want a leader to say prayers or have a service. Make a list of people to contact upon the death of your loved one. Often, this includes family, friends, employer, and community groups.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if my loved one is near the end of their life?
  • How long does my loved one have to live?
  • What type of care does my loved one need?
  • How can I provide comfort and relief to my loved one?
  • What kind of advance directives does my loved one need and what are their options?
  • Can you recommend a support group for my loved one, my family, and me?


AAFP, Cancer Care

AARP, End of Life Care

Caregiver Action Network

U.S. Department of Labor, FMLA