Death talk and relief of death-related distress in patients with advanced cancer

BMJ Support Palliat Care. 2020 Jun;10(2):e19. doi: 10.1136/bmjspcare-2016-001277. Epub 2017 Aug 2.


Objectives: The circumstances of advanced cancer heighten the need for affected individuals to communicate mortality-related concerns, although there may be obstacles to such communication. Managing Cancer and Living Meaningfully(CALM) is a supportive-expressive therapy designed to address such barriers and to facilitate communication of mortality-related concerns in patients and caregivers facing advanced disease. This study explores death-related distress in patients with advanced cancer and the perceived influence of CALM therapy on overcoming barriers to communication of this distress.

Methods: Semistructured interviews were conducted with a subset of patients with advanced cancer (n=17) participating in a CALM phase III trial at a large urban regional cancer centre. Interviews were transcribed, and qualitative data were analysed using thematic analysis.

Results: Death-related distress was experienced in terms of three key themes: diffuse and overwhelming fear, fear of uncertainty and fear of suffering. The perceived barriers to communicating such distress were as follows: reluctance of loved ones to discuss mortality-related issues and the participants´ own reluctance to discuss death-related concerns to protect their loved ones or themselves from distress. CALM therapists were perceived to facilitate discussions on dying and death in sessions and to support patients´ communication of death-related distress with healthcare providers and loved ones.

Conclusions: Patients with advanced cancer perceive barriers to effective communication of death distress to be related to their own reluctance, as well as reluctance of their loved ones to address such fears. CALM therapy may help patients with advanced cancer to overcome obstacles to communication and to alleviate death-related distress.

Trial registration number: NCT01506492.

Keywords: advanced cancer; death-related distress; psychosocial; qualitative research; terror management.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Caregivers / psychology
  • Clinical Trials, Phase III as Topic
  • Communication
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / psychology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Psychological Distress*
  • Terminal Care / psychology*

Associated data