"If it's the time, it's the time": Existential communication in naturally-occurring palliative care conversations with individuals with advanced cancer, their families, and clinicians

Patient Educ Couns. 2021 Dec;104(12):2963-2968. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2021.04.040. Epub 2021 May 10.


Objective: To explore how patients with advanced cancer, their families, and palliative care clinicians communicate about existential experience during palliative care conversations.

Methods: We analyzed data from the Palliative Care Communication Research Initiative (PCCRI) - a multisite cohort study conducted between 2014 and 2016 involving hospitalized adults with advanced cancer who were referred for inpatient palliative care consultations at two academic medical centers. We used a qualitative descriptive approach paired with inductive content analysis to analyze a random subsample of 30 patients from the PCCRI study (contributing to 38 palliative care conversations).

Results: We found existential communication to be woven throughout palliative care conversations, with key themes related to: 1) time as a pressing boundary; 2) maintaining a coherent self; and 3) connecting with others.

Conclusion: Communication about existential experience is omnipresent and varied in palliative care conversations between individuals with advanced cancer, their families, and clinicians.

Practice implications: Clinicians can recognize that discussion of time, routines of daily life, and relationships in the clinical context may hold profound existential relevance in palliative care conversations. Understanding how patients and families talk about existential experience in conversation can create opportunities for clinicians to better meet these needs.

Keywords: Advanced cancer; Communication; Existential; Palliative care; Qualitative research.