Symptom prevalence and control during cancer patients' last days of life

J Palliat Care. Autumn 1990;6(3):7-11.


The lack of control of physical suffering among cancer patients in the last days or hours of life is a common medical problem but it is rarely discussed in an open fashion. We carried out a prospective study of the dying of 120 terminal cancer patients assisted by a home care team. We documented how long it was before death that physical symptoms, unendurable to the patient and controlled only by sedation-inducing sleep, appeared. In 63 patients (52.5%), unendurable symptoms due to tumor progression or irreversible acute organic phenomena appeared, on average two days before death. Of the 63 patients, 47 had only one uncontrollable symptom, 15 had two symptoms and one patient had three symptoms. The most common symptoms included dyspnea (33 patients), pain (31), delirium (11), and vomiting (5). The most frequent symptoms were dyspnea in lung and head and neck disease; pain in breast, gastrointestinal tract, colon-rectum, and male genitourinary tract cancer; and vomiting in female genitourinary tract malignancies. Data reported emphasize the clinical relevance of physical symptoms in the last days of life in terminal cancer patients and how these serve to indicate imminent death. More than 50% of these patients die with physical suffering that is controllable only by means of sedation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Analgesics / adverse effects*
  • Coma / chemically induced*
  • Female
  • Home Care Services
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Pain, Intractable / drug therapy*
  • Palliative Care / standards*
  • Sleep
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Terminal Care


  • Analgesics