I’m often in the position of caring for patients after they’ve stopped active cancer treatments, but before they’ve made the decision to enroll in hospice. They remain under my care until they feel emotionally ready, or until their care needs have escalated to the point in which hospice is unavoidable.
Jenny, a mom in her 50s with metastatic pancreatic cancer, stopped coming to the clinic. She lived about 40 minutes away from the clinic and was no longer receiving treatment. The car rides were painful and difficult for her. I held weekly video visits with her for 2 months before she eventually went to hospice and passed away. Before she died, she shared with me her sadness that her oncologist – who had taken care of her for 3 years – had “washed his hands of [me].” She rarely heard from him after their final conversation in the clinic when he informed her that she was no longer a candidate for further therapy. The sense of abandonment Jenny described was visceral and devastating. With her permission, I let her oncology team know how she felt and they reached out to her just 1 week before her death. After she died, her husband told me how meaningful it had been for the whole family to hear from Jenny’s oncologist who told them that she had done everything possible to fight her cancer and that “no stone was left unturned.” Her husband felt this final conversation provided Jenny with the closure she needed to pass away peacefully.
Transitioning from active therapy to symptom management
Switching gears from an all-out pursuit of active therapy to focusing on cancer symptoms is often a scary transition for patients and their families. The transition is often viewed as a movement away from hope and optimism to “giving up the fight.” Whether you agree with the warrior language or not, many patients still describe their journey in these terms and thus, experience enrollment in hospice as a sense of having failed.
The sense of failure can be compounded by feelings of abandonment by oncology providers when they are referred without much guidance or continuity through the hospice enrollment process. Unfortunately, the consequences of suboptimal hospice transitions can be damaging, especially for the mental health and well-being of the patient and their surviving loved ones.
When managed poorly, hospice transitions can easily lead to patient and family harm, which is a claim supported by research. A qualitative study published in 2019 included 92 caregivers of patients with terminal cancer. The authors found three common pathways for end-of-life transitions – a frictionless transition in which the patient and family are well prepared in advance by their oncologist; a more turbulent transition in which patient and family had direct conversations with their oncologist about the incurability of the disease and the lack of efficacy of further treatments, but were given no guidance on prognosis; and a third type of transition marked by abrupt shifts toward end-of-life care occurring in extremis and typically in the hospital.
In the latter two groups, caregivers felt their loved ones died very quickly after stopping treatment, taking them by surprise and leaving them rushing to put end-of-life care plans in place without much support from their oncologists. In the last group, caregivers shared they received their first prognostic information from the hospital or ICU doctor caring for their actively dying loved one, leaving them with a sense of anger and betrayal toward their oncologist for allowing them to be so ill-prepared.
A Japanese survey published in 2018 in The Oncologist of families of cancer patients who had passed away under hospice care over a 2-year period (2012-2014), found that about one-quarter felt abandoned by oncologists. Several factors that were associated with feeling either more or less abandonment. Spouses of patients, patients aged less than 60 years, and patients whose oncologists informed them that there was “nothing more to do” felt more abandoned by oncologists; whereas families for whom the oncologist provided reassurance about the trajectory of care, recommended hospice, and engaged with a palliative care team felt less abandoned by oncologists. Families who felt more abandoned had higher levels of depression and grief when measured with standardized instruments.