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Weekly Tips & Insights

Top insights cancer patients and their caregivers need to know about hospice.

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

VNA's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Mary Fox, sat down to answer the top question cancer patients and their caregivers have about hospice care. Read her answers and post any additional questions you have in the comments section below.

For more information about VNA's hospice care services, call (314) 918 -7171 or email

When is it time for cancer patients to seek hospice care?

This is often such a difficult question for people battling cancer. Some cancers are curable. These days, even incurable cancers have many new treatment options so that a cancer that used to be a “death sentence” often becomes more of a chronic illness.

However, there comes a time when the cancer keeps growing despite chemotherapy, despite radiation therapy, and people just get tired of feeling sick and tired. When they no longer want to or are able to bear the side effects of treatment…that’s certainly the time for hospice.

But the conversation about end of life and advance directives should be taking place at the initial diagnosis of any incurable cancer. And a palliative care team should be in place to help the patient and caregivers through the rough patches.

What are everyday issues that medical doctors and nurses address that are unique to cancer?

Pain and fatigue are the two symptoms common to all types of cancer. Appetite and weight loss, nausea, and depression are also very common. Because there are many different kinds of cancer some issues are unique to a particular cancer, such as shortness of breath in lung cancer or abdominal pain with pancreatic cancer.

How do doctors and nurses help cancer patients manage their symptoms?

First, gathering a careful history is necessary and then educating the patient about how various treatments can help.

And probably the best way to help manage symptoms related to cancer is through compassionate care.

What are some things patients and their caregivers might not realize when dealing with cancer?

This may sound hard to believe, but sometimes patients and their caregivers may not realize that the advanced cancer the patient is suffering from is incurable. So, they can be surprised when palliative treatments fail and the end of life looms closer than expected.

What kind of activities are advised for patients with cancer?

Anything safe and tolerated. For instance, a person with cancer in the bone will need to avoid any high impact exercises. Fatigue, pain or shortness of breath may prohibit much activity. But generally, walking, swimming, stretching, etc., as tolerated is a good thing.

How do VNA nurses train caregivers to care for their loved ones with cancer when the nurses aren’t there?

Nurses provided comprehensive education to caregivers that can help get patients through the rough spots.

What do you want families to know about caring for a loved one with cancer?

We know that this is a terribly difficult journey for everyone involved. We want to assure them that what you receive on hospice is a separate, but wonderful, kind of medical care for their loved one, that there’s nothing to fear. You and your loved one won’t be alone.

What are some common misconceptions surrounding care for patients suffering from cancer?

One common misconception is that choosing to stop further cancer treatment means all symptoms will get worse immediately and that death is then right around the corner. Actually, many people who have advanced cancer feel better off of chemotherapy and may be able to engage more fully with their family and friends for whatever time they have left.

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