Hospice for Cancer

Last Updated: November 23, 2020

Written by the Open Caregiving Team. Editorial review by Joyce O. Murphy RN, MSN.

What does hospice mean for cancer patients?

It means that the patient is choosing comfort over further treatment of the cancer they’ve been living with. This typically means that it has been medically determined a cure is not possible or very unlikely.

Hospice offers your loved one and family respect and the ability to have life’s end-stage close with dignity. One of the primary goals of hospice is for people with cancer to have the highest quality of life for as long as possible.

What does hospice do for patients who have cancer?

Hospice serves the physical and emotional care needs of people who are dying because of cancer. Your loved one and family receive the care, support, and education that promote comfort and quality of life during the months or weeks of end-stage cancer. Services include:

  • Comfort care and pain management.
  • Care that is coordinated by your loved one’s hospice team, including:
    • Doctors
    • Nurses and home health aides
    • Social workers and bereavement counselors
    • Volunteers

Your loved one will have services available at home, in the hospital, or in another facility, such as at a hospice house or nursing home. The setting for hospice care is determined by:

  • Your loved one and family’s preferences.
  • The ability for your loved one’s comfort and pain level to be managed satisfactorily.
    • If care at home becomes challenging, your loved one can be transferred to another setting.
    • The hospice team will work with you to determine the best placement for your loved one’s care needs.

How can hospice help cancer patients?

Hospice helps cancer patients by making them as comfortable and supported as possible. Hospice also helps to reduce the number of re-hospitalizations, something that can often cause added stress.

Your loved one makes decisions about the hospice care they will receive for as long as they can. These wishes are shared with the hospice team. Your loved one gets to make choices, such as:

  • What they want to eat. The hospice team will let you know of any restrictions, what is okay and what is not.
  • Where they prefer to pass and who they wish to be by their side, if possible.
  • Sharing time with family and friends.
  • How to create a comfortable setting at home or in a hospice facility that allows them to:
    • Watch their favorite TV shows and listen to their favorite music.
    • Have peace and quiet when in pain or exhausted.
    • Spend time with beloved children and pets.

Your loved one knows that you and other family members are supported by professionals who are experienced caring for grieving families.

How Can Hospice Help the Family of a Cancer Patient?

Each family and hospice situation is unique. Your loved one’s hospice team is made up of people who have cared for many other families. They are prepared to:

  • Provide information and tips to help you care for your loved one as you wish. This includes comforting care and how to keep everyone safe.
  • Let you know that someone is available by phone or text at all hours. This provides you with security knowing you can reach a nurse during the night and on weekends.
  • Offer your family counseling and bereavement services  before and after your loved one passes.
  • Have their volunteers visit your loved one. This can give you respite time to care for your own needs.

Hospice professionals are with your family each step of the way, and in any setting where your loved one receives care.

  • Hospice team members know about the challenges that families face when their loved one has end-stage cancer. Whether this is a child, someone with a new diagnosis, or someone who’s had cancer for years, your family gets personal care and attention.
  • This helps when making decisions as a social worker is available to guide you, including when there are differences of opinion. The medical social worker is available to help with financial decisions too.
  • Team members will guide you with how to talk about end-of-life with your loved one, regardless of their age.
  • The team will help you with accessing equipment and supplies. They can provide you with information about medications and help to make sure prescriptions are filled on time.

When to call hospice for your loved one who has cancer

Hospice may be needed for cancer patients when their condition is declining and no longer responding to medical treatment. At this point your loved one’s oncologist will state that all applicable treatments are not containing the cancer.

  • The malignancy continues to grow and/or spread to other parts of the body. This happens despite efforts to stop it from doing so.
  • Your loved one’s emotional, physical, and social resources can no longer endure all that is needed to control the cancer.
  • Your loved one prioritizes quality of life for as long as possible rather than continued treatment that may have painful side-effects.

It is wise to call hospice even before the above becomes inevitable. That way your loved one and family are ready to take next steps if and when you decide it is appropriate.

It’s important to note that many families wish they had made their decision to begin hospice earlier than they did.

Hospice eligibility criteria for cancer

Your loved one’s eligibility for hospice care because of cancer includes:

  • Their physician has determined that they have six or fewer months to live.
  • Your loved one decides to stop medical treatment, realizing that they will not be cured.
  • Your loved one and family have decided it’s time to focus on comfort and quality of life.

What is the average time in hospice for cancer patients?

  • The hospice timeline for people with end-stage is typically six months or less, depending on how far advanced the cancer is when your loved one is admitted.
  • If your loved one’s condition improves while in hospice, they can go off hospice and return if their condition declines.
  • If your loved one continues to decline, yet lives beyond six months, a doctor needs to re-certify the need for continued hospice care.

Can you get chemo on hospice?

Although medical care focused on comfort will continue until a patient passes, chemotherapy is stopped in hospice. Chemotherapy often has side effects that can be distressing for your loved one, so many patients find it comforting to be free of these negative side effects in their final stages of life.

Can you enter a clinical trial on hospice?

Hospice care is intended for those who have decided to forego any more efforts to cure the cancer they have.

  • This means that Medicare and other insurers will deny paying for hospice if your loved one chooses to enter a clinical trial.
  • If your loved one is considering a clinical trial, talk with the trial’s manager about their guidelines. At the same time, discuss options with any hospice agency your loved one is considering for end-stage care.
  • If your loved one’s condition shows improvement while in hospice, it is okay to leave and return later if there is a relapse. This might be the case when someone opts to become part of a trial, if they’re eligible.

Does Medicare cover hospice for cancer?

Yes, Medicare covers hospice care for cancer as long as all eligibility requirements are met.

Does Medicaid cover hospice for cancer?

Yes, Medicaid will pay for hospice care for cancer based on your loved one’s state eligibility requirements.

NOTE: Most private insurance companies also pay for many hospice care expenses. It is best to check in with your loved one’s insurer to learn more.

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