Most cancer patients receiving end-of-life care report same five signs

Sarah Beeny reflects on her cancer diagnosis

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When a healthcare provider determines that a patient’s cancer can no longer be controlled, treatment is replaced by palliative care. Despite the slim chances of survival, characterising it is important for a number of reasons. Earlier care for such patients can reduce their symptom burden, for example.

In most cases, cancer is diagnosed only after symptoms have developed, typically in the advanced stages.

Because the tumour will have likely metastasised at this point, a patient’s chances of survival tends to be slim.

Unfortunately, cancer can be a slow-growing disease that sometimes takes years to produce symptoms.

Sometimes people will survive for several months, or even a year with end-stage cancer, with or without treatment.

Some studies have sought to whittle down the main characteristics for each stage of the disease in a bid to help sharpen diagnostic measures.

To help elucidate the characteristics of end-stage cancer, a review published in Dialogues in Clinic Neuroscience looked at 44 different studies.

The authors explained: “Patients with terminal cancer suffer from an enormous symptom burden.”

Data from thousands of patients suggested a higher prevalence of five symptoms among individuals with incurable cancer.

“Five symptoms (fatigue, pain, lack of energy, weakness and appetite loss) were reported in greater than 50 percent of patients,” noted the authors.

“The prevalence of nervousness and depression were 48 percent and 39 percent, respectively.

“As described earlier, many of the core diagnostic symptoms of depression are precisely those symptoms experienced most commonly by cancer patients at the end of life.

“Importantly, somatic symptoms frequently co-occur with depression in cancer patients and are associated with increased disability.”

Stage 4 cancer is diagnosed when the disease has spread from where it started to at least one other body organ.

The organisation OPA explains: “Some people die from cancer fairly quickly, especially if there were unexpected complications or the cancer was very severe.

“In other cases, it can take months or years. However, as cancer grows or spreads, it will start to impact multiple organs and the essential bodily processes they perform.”

Can stage 4 cancer be survived?

Though the overall prognosis of Stage 4 cancer is poor, many patients go on to live for years after diagnosis.

Stage 4 cancer does not necessarily mean that the disease is irreversible, but that its spread has made it significantly harder to manage.

Whether or not a person is likely to survive stage 4 cancer will largely be determined by the type of cancer and where it has spread to.

Lung and bronchial cancers, for example, cause more deaths than any other type of cancer because the lungs can neither be seen nor felt.

Other types of cancer that are notoriously hard to survive in the advanced stages are colorectal and pancreatic cancer, though these are more likely to produce symptoms earlier on.

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