PDFs by language
Our 24/7 cancer helpline provides support for people dealing with cancer. We can connect you with trained cancer information specialists who will answer questions about a cancer diagnosis and provide guidance and a compassionate ear.
Chat live online
Select the Live Chat button at the bottom of the page
At our National Cancer Information Center trained Cancer Information Specialists can answer questions 24 hours a day, every day of the year to empower you with accurate, up-to-date information to help you make educated health decisions. We connect patients, caregivers, and family members with valuable services and resources.
Or ask us how you can get involved and support the fight against cancer. Some of the topics we can assist with include:
For medical questions, we encourage you to review our information with your doctor.
This information has been written for the caregiver, but many patients want this same information for themselves. It gives some signs that death may be close and gives the caregivers some ideas about ways they may be able to help.
The signs of death being near can be different for each person. No one can really predict what may happen at the end of life, how long the final stage of life will last, or when death will actually happen. Sometimes death comes quickly due to an unexpected event or problem. Other times the dying process moves slowly and the patient seems to linger.
If possible, it’s important to have a plan for what to do just following a death, so that the caregivers and other people who are with the patient know what to do during this very emotional time. If the patient is in hospice, the hospice nurse and social worker will help you. If the patient is not in hospice, talk with the doctor so that you will know exactly what to do at the time of death.
Just like the timing of the dying process cannot be predicted, it's also hard to predict what exactly will happen in the final stage of life and especially near death. The following symptoms are examples of what may happen in some people with cancer who are dying. While not all may happen, it may help you to know about them.
After death it’s all right if you want to sit with the person for a while. There’s no rush to get anything done right away. Many families find this is an important time to pray or talk together and reaffirm their love for each other, as well as for the person who has passed away.
If you have a hospice or home care agency involved, call them first. If you’ve completed funeral arrangements, calling the funeral director and doctor are usually all that you have to do.
If the patient dies at home and is not under hospice care, caregivers are responsible for calling the right people. Regulations or laws about who must be notified and how the body should be moved differ from one community to another. Your doctor or nurse can get this information for you.
An important note: If you call 911 or Emergency Medical Services (EMS), even after an expected death at home, the law often requires that EMS try to revive the patient or take them to a hospital. This can complicate the situation and delay funeral plans. Be sure that family and friends are ready and know exactly whom to call, so that they don’t dial 911 in confusion or panic.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Boyle DA. Nursing care at the end of life: Optimizing care of the family in the hospital setting. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 2019; 23(1):13-17.
Eues SK. End-of-life care: Improving quality of life at the end of life. Prof Case Management. 2007; 12(6):339-344.
Hui D, dos Santos R, Chisholm G, et al. (2015), Bedside clinical signs associated with impending death in patients with advanced cancer: Preliminary findings of a prospective, longitudinal cohort study. Cancer. 2015;121(6):960-967.
National Cancer Institute (NCI). End of life care. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/care-choices/care-fact-sheet on April 2, 2019.
Rodgers D, Calmes B, Grotts J. Nursing care at the time of death: A bathing and honoring practice. Oncology Nursing Forum. 2016; 43(3):363-371.
Last Revised: May 10, 2019
American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.