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Coping With Terminal Pancreatic Cancer: Planning End-Of-Life Care

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According to the American Cancer Society, doctors diagnose more than 45,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer every year. Over recent years, the disease has become more common in the United States, and now accounts for around 7 percent of all cancer-related deaths. If a doctor decides that the disease is incurable, he or she will work with other healthcare professionals to put together a care plan to make the patient as comfortable as possible. If you are facing terminal pancreatic cancer, learn what to expect from your care plan, and understand what options you may have.

Types of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer can form in the head, body or tail of the organ, and the location of the tumor can dictate the symptoms you may suffer from. Exocrine cancer is the most common form of pancreatic cancer, which means the disease forms in the cells where the pancreas produces its digestive juices.

Endocrine pancreatic tumors are less common, and these cancers start in the part of the pancreas that produces insulin and other vital hormones. Some of these tumors produce hormones that lead to various side effects, ranging from weakness and dizziness, to gallstones, watery diarrhea and anemia.

The 5-year survival rates for exocrine pancreatic cancer range from 14 to 1 percent, according to the stage of the disease. Doctors can treat endocrine tumors with surgery, and those cancers have better survival rates, ranging from 61 to 16 percent.

Planning end-of-life care

End-of-life care varies from one person to another, and your doctor will work with nurses and caregivers to develop a plan that meets your needs. According to the National Cancer Institute, research shows that people who actively discuss their care options with a doctor go on to cope better with the disease, and generally experience less stress.

An advance directive is a document that outlines what you want to happen. For example, you can decide who you want to act as a decision-maker for your care when you become unable to decide. Doctors recommend that all cancer patients contribute to one of these plans.

Managing pain

Some cancer patients only suffer small amounts of pain at the end of their lives. Other people experience constant, intense pain, but nurses can help control this problem. Your doctor will often prescribe strong oral pain medications, which you will need to take around-the-clock. Nurses may also administer pain relief with a suppository, skin patch or injection.

In some cases, a doctor may recommend a celiac plexus block to help control serious pain. If your tumor presses on the spine or nerves in the upper abdomen, you may suffer very painful symptoms, but the celiac plexus block addresses this by stopping the nerves talking to the brain. A nurse can also show you how to use breathing and relaxation techniques to cope with the pain. You should talk to your nurse about any changes in the pain you feel, so he or she can adjust your treatment plan.

Coping with jaundice

Pancreatic cancer causes a condition called jaundice, where the skin and eyes turn yellow. This problem occurs when the tumor blocks the bile duct, leading to damage to the liver. Jaundice can cause extreme itching, and, for some pancreatic cancer patients, this is as unpleasant as any pain.

Biliary bypass surgery can help patients, and doctors will also sometimes use a stent to relieve the jaundice. This routine operation has a 90 percent success rate, and can help prolong patient survival.

Personal care

Your primary caregiver will give you most of your personal care, but he or she will often have the support of a home health nurse or care worker who will regularly visit your home. You may have up to three visits per week, according to what you need.

You may need help with all daily activities, including eating, dressing, going to the toilet and bathing. Most patients like to choose who carries out these tasks, and you may have different people to help you with certain things. In some cases, you may need to hire a home health aide to help you, particularly if your friends and family are not physically able to fully support you.

Moving to a hospice

Many terminal pancreatic cancer patients eventually move to a hospice for care, particularly if their primary caregiver cannot offer enough assistance. Moving to a hospice does not mean that you have given up. Hospice services can sometimes offer better pain relief, and may allow you to spend more quality time with your loved ones. You should consider hospice care when the time is right, even if you believe the conversation will upset your family and friends.

Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease that kills thousands of Americans every year. During the advanced stages of the cancer, patients normally need extensive care at home, and may eventually need to move to a hospice. Click here for more information.