Discussing end-of-life issues with terminally ill cancer patients and their carers: a qualitative study

Support Care Cancer. 2005 Aug;13(8):589-99. doi: 10.1007/s00520-004-0759-2. Epub 2005 Jan 12.


Goals of work: Discussing end-of-life issues is of key importance to terminally ill cancer patients and their families, and a challenging topic for both health professionals and patients/carers. There is a lack of research evidence in the literature to guide clinical practice. The objective of this study was to explore the optimal content and phrasing of information when discussing the dying process and end-of-life issues with terminally ill cancer patients and their carers.

Subjects and methods: We conducted focus groups and individual interviews with 19 palliative care patients and 24 carers from three palliative care services in Sydney, and 22 palliative care health professionals from around Australia. The focus groups and individual interviews were audiotaped and fully transcribed. Further focus groups and/or individual interviews were conducted until no additional topics were raised. Participants' narratives were analysed using qualitative methodology.

Main results: Distinct content areas emerged for discussing end-of-life issues: treatment decisions at the end-of-life; potential future symptoms; preferences for place of death; the process of dying; what needs to be done immediately after death; and existential issues. When discussing the process of dying participants recommended: exploring the persons' fears about dying and dispelling myths; describing the final days and the likely unconscious period; and the reduced need for food and fluids. Many participants identified the dilemma regarding whether to discuss potential complications around the time of death.

Conclusions: This paper provides strategies, words and phrases which may inform discussions about the process of dying and end-of-life issues. Further research is needed to determine the generalizability of these findings.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Caregivers*
  • Communication*
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms*
  • New South Wales
  • Palliative Care
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Terminally Ill*