Category Archives: palliative care

Finding the Hero in the Dying

white flowerWhen someone is fighting cancer, they are lauded as a “Warrior.”   Search the web and you can find sites like Cancer Warrior.  We congratulate people fighting cancer for being warriors and being strong — we call them heroes for fighting the good fight. None of this is bad as it gives the cancer patient hope and encouragement.

What happens though when the patient decides they are done fighting and want to discontinue treatment? Are they no longer a hero? If they aren’t a warrior or fighter or hero, what are they?  Are they a loser?  Someone who has given up and lost the fight?

Frequently the patient feels as if they are letting down their family by stopping the fight.   They feel their family and friends do not want them to quit fighting and they owe them because they have given so much of their time to care for them.   The patient’s family and friends feel as if they need to make excuses about why the patient has “given up.”

I think we need to change our feeling towards stopping the fight. We need to find the hero in stopping aggressive treatment and starting palliative or hospice care.  We need to ensure that the person who is living their life, well aware they are dying, know they are just as much a hero as when they were fighting their cancer.

What is courage? It is defined as the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.

“Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior.”
– Karl Van Clausewitz

I can’t think of anything that takes more courage than embracing your last days on earth and confronting the fact that you are dying and most likely dying soon.   Being able to say “no thank you” to additional invasive treatments and instead focusing on LIVING the last days of your life with your family and friends, doing the things you want, hopefully outside the confines of the hospital.  That is courage and we need to celebrate that courage.

The courage of someone embracing their last days does not negate the courage of someone fighting their disease.  One patient’s path is not right and one is not wrong.  Both patients are heroes and warriors and courageous.

One of the most difficult things I had to do as a caregiver of my mother, and probably will remain one of the most difficult things I will EVER have to do as human, was to say to her that it was okay to stop the treatment… that I had called Hospice to see what her options were and maybe she should talk to them as well.   That maybe it was time to leave the hospital and come home.  I felt as if I was letting her down and giving up on her.   That I WANTED her to die.

Of course, me wanting her to die was the furthest thing from my mind.  I wanted her to stop hurting.  I didn’t want to see her lying in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe.  I didn’t want to see her shrinking away with tubes and beeping monitors surrounding her.  I wanted to see her at home surrounded by her grandchildren, snuggling and reading them stories.

What made it hard was that I knew giving up on the treatments meant we were accepting that she was going to die.    It was what we all knew.. the proverbial “elephant in the room” but no one wanted to recognize the elephant.  Dammit, if we kept at the treatments, surely something would work.  There was always one more study or one more clinical trial.  Or maybe we just hadn’t seen the right doctor.  Surely by calling Hospice I was declaring to the world and to her that I wanted my mother to die.

There were not many times I cried when caring for my mother — mostly because I had to be strong in caring for her and there just wasn’t time for a pity party.   This was not one of those times where I was strong.  After the conversation I cried with wracking gut wrenching, nearly vomiting sobs.  It was admitting to her and to me and to everyone I knew that she was going to die.    Its been almost two years since she passed and thinking about that moment in order to get it to paper is bringing the tears again.

The most amazing thing happened though.   She was happy.   After the conversation, I remember her sitting up straighter and looking determined.  The doctors looked relieved and glad the decision had been made.  Not everyone was on board immediately — it took my mother some time to convince everyone that she was ready to stop the treatments.  But she was sure and I felt good that I had broached the subject.

She came home and grew stronger without the poisoning of the treatments.  Hospice came by regularly and provided counseling and medical advice and treatments designed to make her feel better day to day. Not treatments that would cure her but make it so she could live her life until her death.

She lived for three months after that decision and was able to attend her grandchildren’s soccer games and birthday parties and go out to dinner with her family.  She had streams of visitors and she was able to enjoy their visits in the comfort of a home environment, rather than ill in a hospital bed.   She sat in the sunshine and enjoyed the warmth of upcoming Spring.

She is my hero.  My warrior.  And I know no one more courageous.    She confronted the fear of death head on with a smile and embraced the life she had left.

I wish the same for you and your loved ones.   Stopping treatments and embracing the time you have left makes you no less a hero.   You are a warrior of life and the courage it takes to take that step back from treatments to live that life needs to be celebrated.   Bravo for you!

Setting Boundaries when Caring for your Dying Parent

“I don’t check my email very often so can you just call me with the updates each day?”  I sat at the end of my mother’s hospital bed, dumfounded on how to respond.   I was spending up to 2 hours a day calling each person who wanted an update on my mother and felt obligated to do so since these were people who obviously cared for my mother deeply.  They were her friends, siblings and cousins.  People who were praying for her and hoping for her and people who had volunteered to help with her caregiving.  I owed it to them to at least let her know how she was doing, right?

Wrong.

My obligation was to care for my mother and if I was busy updating all these people two things were going to occur…  1) I wasn’t going to care for my mother as well as I could and 2) I was going to drive myself into sickness myself.  Neither was a good situation.

So I learned to be firm.  When people asked such things I would just let them know that we were sending out updates via email (and later we started to use caringbridge.com to send out updates) and they could follow that and if they didn’t check email then they should find a buddy who did and that buddy could update them.  I was busy taking care of Mom.

I have to admit I felt guilty being so firm about it but people took it well and eventually I learned that it was the best route to take.  We even put a notice on her caringbridge site that thanked people for their well wishes but that we would most likely not be responding to email or voicemails as our focus was on her health and our well being during this life crisis.

There were other boundaries to set too that at times made me feel inhospitable and mean.  When friends had overstayed their visit and I knew my Mom needed to sleep I plainly told them it was time to go — it was naptime.  I had lots of people in and out of my house to help care for my Mom and I was and am STILL grateful for all their help — it helped me lead a somewhat normal life and my Mom felt SO loved and appreciated.   However, sometimes it was too much and I needed to protect some of our family life.  There was more than once occasion where I told someone that I needed their help and was glad they were making a trek from other states to visit, but they needed to find another place to stay.  I didn’t have the energy or fortitude to be nice to an overnight guest.  I didn’t want to worry about changing sheets or if they wanted coffee in the morning in our coffee-less home.

I also had to set boundaries with my time.  I felt guilty when people would come from out of state to visit and the second they arrived, I shot out the door to go to work or sometimes to just get some time for myself.   But that’s why they were there.  To help and spend time with my mother … not for me to entertain them or to see me.  So I needed to get over my guilt so I could better care for my mother when they were not around.

I truly did feel blessed to know people cared and it did make my Mom feel better too but we needed those boundaries and you probably do too.  If you feel mean setting them, refer them to this post and maybe it will help explain.

Palliative and Hospice Care

Palliative Care focuses on relieving and preventing suffering.   This can be for people who are dying and for those that have an illness that won’t necessarily lead to death.   Because it is for all patients, whether they are dying or not, makes it different than Hospice Care that focuses only on patients with terminal illness.  The goal is everyone in the team involved.   It should include the physician, pharmacists, nurses, spiritual providers, social workers, psychologists, caregivers, and the patient.  It should address physical, emotional, spiritual and social needs of the patient.

What makes treatments palliative rather than just general treatment?   If they relieve symptoms without the intent to cure or fix the disease.  For example, providing pain relief for severe arthritis will not cure the arthritis but it will help the patient feel better.

During my mother’s illness, I found that doctors found both palliative care and hospice care to be a difficult path.   Doctors are taught to cure.   They are taught to find ways to extend life, even at the risk of decreasing the quality of life.   They are not taught to help someone without the path to a cure.   The funny thing was that once we switched the plan to palliative though, my mother’s health improved.   The drugs that were intended to extend her life made her sick.  The same drugs that were keeping her tumors at bay also caused severe respiratory distress.  She felt as if she was drowning and gasping for breath …. And in fact, she was.

I can’t prove it but I do believe that by abandoning the “curative” drugs that were supposedly increasing her lifespan, her life was actually extended because the QUALITY improved.  The New England Journal of Medicine published a 2010 study on terminally ill lung cancer patients that showed those receiving palliative care had a better quality of life and lived an average of three months longer than those who did not seek palliative care so there is some scientific proof to back my hunch.