What to Expect When a Person With Cancer is Nearing Death

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.

Possible changes in body function

  • Profound weakness – usually the patient can’t get out of bed and has trouble moving around in bed
  • Needs help with nearly everything
  • Less and less interest in food, often with very little food and fluid intake for days
  • Trouble swallowing pills and medicines
  • More drowsiness – the patient may doze or sleep much of the time if pain is relieved, and may be hard to rouse or wake
  • Lips may appear to droop
  • Short attention span, may not be able to focus on what’s happening
  • Confusion about time, place, or people
  • Limited ability to cooperate with caregivers
  • Sudden movement of any muscle, jerking of hands, arms, legs, or face

What caregivers can do

  • Help the patient turn and change positions every 1 to 2 hours. It's best to time any position changes to be about 30 minutes after pain medicine is given.
  • Speak in a calm, quiet voice and avoid sudden noises or movements to reduce the chances of startling the patient.
  • If the patient has trouble swallowing pain pills, ask about getting liquid pain medicines or a pain patch.
  • If the patient is having trouble swallowing, do not give them solid foods. Try ice chips or sips of liquid.
  • Do not force fluids. Near the end of life, some dehydration is normal.
  • Apply cool, moist washcloths to head, face, and body for comfort.

Possible changes in consciousness

  • More sleeping during the day
  • Hard to wake or rouse from sleep
  • Confusion about time, place, or people
  • Restless, might pick or pull at bed linen
  • May talk about things unrelated to the events or people present
  • May have more anxiety, restlessness, fear, and loneliness at night
  • After a period of sleepiness and confusion, may have a short time when he or she is mentally clear before going back into semi-consciousness

What caregivers can do

  • Plan your times with the patient when he or she is most alert or during the night when your presence may be comforting.
  • When talking with the patient, remind her or him who you are and what day and time it is.
  • Continue pain medicines up to the end of life.
  • If the patient is very restless, try to find out if they are having pain. If it appears they are, give breakthrough pain medicines as prescribed, or check with the doctor or nurse if needed.
  • When talking with a confused person, use calm, confident, gentle tones to reduce chances of startling or frightening the patient.
  • Gentle touching, caressing, holding, and rocking are usually helpful and comforting.

Possible changes in metabolism

  • The patient may have less interest in food. (The patient has less need for food and drink.)
  • Mouth may dry out (see “Possible changes in secretions” below)
  • May no longer need some of his or her medicines, such as vitamins, replacement hormones, blood pressure medicines, and diuretics, unless they help make the patient more comfortable

What caregivers can do

  • Put lip balm, lubricant, or petroleum jelly (Vaseline®) on the lips to prevent drying.
  • Ice chips from a spoon, or sips of water or juice from a straw may be enough for the patient.
  • Check with the doctor to see which medicines may be stopped. Medicines for pain, nausea, fever, seizures, or anxiety should be continued to keep the patient comfortable.

Possible changes in secretions

  • Mucus may collect in the back of the throat. This may cause a rattling sound with breathing that’s very distressing to hear, but it isn’t usually uncomfortable for the patient.
  • Secretions may thicken and build up due to less fluid intake and because the patient can’t cough

What caregivers can do

  • If the mouth secretions increase, keep them loose by adding humidity to the room with a cool mist humidifier.
  • If the patient can swallow, give ice chips or sips of liquid through a straw. This may help thin secretions.
  • Change the patient’s position – turning them to the side may help secretions drain from the mouth. Continue to clean the teeth and mouth with water and a soft toothbrush or foam mouth swabs.
  • Certain medicines may help. Ask your doctor or nurse about them.

Possible changes in circulation and temperature

  • Arms and legs may feel cool to the touch as circulation slows down
  • Skin on arms, legs, hands, and feet may darken and look blue or mottled (blotchy)
  • Other areas of the body may become either darker or paler
  • Skin may feel cold and either dry or damp
  • Heart rate may become fast, faint, or irregular
  • Blood pressure may get lower and become hard to hear

What caregivers can do

  • Keep the patient warm with blankets or light bed coverings.
  • Don’t use electric blankets, heating pads, etc.

Possible changes in senses and perception

  • Vision may become blurry or dim
  • Pupils may not change size
  • May have trouble closing eyelids
  • Hearing may decrease, but most patients can hear you even after they can no longer speak.

What caregivers can do

  • Leave indirect lights on as vision decreases.
  • Always assume the patient can hear you.
  • Continue to speak with and touch the patient to reassure them of your presence. Your words of affection and support are likely to be understood and appreciated.

Possible changes in breathing

  • Breathing may speed up and slow down due to less blood circulation and build-up of waste products in the body
  • Patient may grunt while breathing
  • Neck muscles may look tight to help breathe
  • Mucus in the back of the throat may cause rattling or gurgling with each breath
  • The patient may not breathe for periods of up 10 to 30 seconds

What caregivers can do

  • Put the patient on their back, or slightly to one side.
  • Raising the patient’s head may give some relief.
  • Use pillows to prop the patient’s head and chest at an angle or raise the head of a hospital bed.
  • Any position that seems to make breathing easier is OK, including sitting up with good support. A small person may be more comfortable in your arms.

Possible changes in elimination

  • Urine may become darker and decrease in amount
  • The patient may lose control of urine and stool

What caregivers can do

  • Pad the bed beneath the patient with layers of disposable waterproof pads.
  • If the patient has a catheter to collect urine, the nurse will teach you to care for it.
  • Bathe the patient as they can tolerate it - this could be a sponge bath or simply washing certain parts of the body.

Signs that death has occurred

  • Breathing stops
  • Blood pressure cannot be heard
  • Pulse stops
  • Eyes stop moving and may stay open
  • Pupils of the eyes stay large, even in bright light
  • Control of bowels or bladder may be lost as the muscles relax

What caregivers can do

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.

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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.

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Last Medical Review: May 10, 2019 Last Revised: May 10, 2019

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