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Loved One With Advanced Cancer? 4 Things to Know

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Heather Millar - Blogs
By Heather MillarAward-winning writerNovember 06, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

I’ve been interviewing a lot of patients lately with metastatic cancer — cancer that has spread to different parts of the body. Frankly, I find it terrifying. The term itself is just so scary. I’m 5 years out from my cancer diagnosis with no evidence of disease, and I’d like to stay that way.

We all hope for a cure for cancer. We especially all hope for a cure for OUR cancer.

Yet, I think that hope sometimes causes the concerns and challenges of patients with advanced cancer to be overlooked. We just don’t talk about these patients as much as we should.

I’ve learned a lot from talking to people who are living this frightening reality. Here are 4 things that they really want you to know:

1. Don’t say, “Oh, you’ll beat this.” Despite “improved survival” (med-speak for living longer) for some cancers, there is still no cure for metastatic cancer. If you can’t think of another encouraging comment, then don’t say anything, or talk about something else. Being there is a gift for most patients.

2. Appearances can be deceptive. Don’t assume that because someone with advanced cancer has hair and enough energy to work that everything is OK. With early stage cancers, the goal is cure and the treatment can be aggressive. But with metastatic cancer, the goal usually is to buy more time. Doctors generally try to find a balance between quality of life and effective treatment. That may mean that the team holds back the most aggressive treatments until the patient absolutely needs them.

So a patient with early cancer and a good chance of cure may look terrible: pale, gaunt, and bald. But an advanced cancer patient, who will die of cancer, may look pretty good because their docs aren’t giving chemo yet, or because surgery isn’t possible. Yet the latter patient is the sicker one.

3. Even though they’re dying, they need to LIVE. They’re fighting for time. Talking and thinking about cancer 24/7 is a waste of that time. Help get their minds off things. Encourage them to go, to do, to see and to experience. Help them live in the now.

4. Tell them it’s not their fault. As a society, we love to have scapegoats for tragedy, as in, “If you cancer spread it’s because of diet, or exercise, or where you live, or too much stress.” In all likelihood, the cancer spread because of its biology, its particular combination of attributes. That’s not a patient’s fault.

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About the Author
Heather Millar

Heather Millar is an award-winning freelance magazine writer and author with wide-ranging interests including health, science, the environment, geopolitics, technology, parenting, and Asian affairs. 

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