Key questions

Some people’s cancer may be advanced when they are first diagnosed. For others, the cancer may spread or come back (recur) after initial treatment. Advanced cancer usually can’t be cured, but it can often be controlled. For some people, improved treatments can help manage the cancer and relieve side effects, allowing people to live for a long time – sometimes for years – with a good quality of life. In this case, the cancer may be considered a chronic (long-lasting) disease.

These questions may help you to understand your options if you have been diagnosed with advanced cancer. and ways you can manage your diagnosis:

     − Julie

What treatments are available

This will depend on the aim of treatment – whether it’s to try to cure the cancer, keep the cancer from spreading, or to control symptoms. Treatment will depend on where the cancer started, how far it has spread, your general health and preferences.

The most common treatments include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these. Sometimes, treatment is available through clinical trials. Treatments can be used for different reasons, so talk to your doctor about the aim of each treatment.

As the cancer progresses, the aim may change from trying to cure the cancer, to controlling the cancer, to relieving symptoms and improving quality of life. For further details, see Treatment for advanced cancer.

Who will coordinate my treatment?

If you have many health professionals caring for you (also referred to as a multidisciplinary team), it can help to know who is coordinating your care. This may be your general practitioner (GP), your palliative care team, the oncologist, a care coordinator, or another member of the treatment team. See Treatment for advanced cancer for more.

How will advanced cancer affect my day-to-day life?

Cancer affects people’s lives in different ways.

  • Work – If you work, you may need to take time off or stop work altogether.
  • Finances – Treatment or other services can be expensive and may affect your finances. This can add to concerns you may have, such as negotiating leave from work or getting financial assistance.
  • Symptoms – The cancer or treatment may cause various symptoms, such as nausea, fatigue or breathlessness. These may impact on what you can comfortably do and on your sense of independence. See Managing symptoms for more.
  • Practical issues – There can be practical issues you may have to think about to make life more comfortable, such as medical equipment, alterations to your home, or home help. If the hospital is a long distance from your home, you may require transport or accommodation, especially if there are times when you are in and out of hospital.
  • Emotional changes – You may also experience emotional changes from the cancer and its treatment – for example, some hormonal treatments affect people’s emotions. Changes to your work, finances and health may also result in mood changes.

Will palliative care help?

Palliative care is an approach that allows people with advanced cancer to maintain their quality of life in a way that is meaningful to them. It treats physical, practical, emotional or spiritual symptoms.

Palliative care involves a range of services offered by medical, nursing and allied health professionals, as well as volunteers and carers.

While some people delay or feel anxious about accessing palliative care because they believe it’s only offered to people close to death, this type of care can improve quality of life from the time of diagnosis. It can be used for only a few weeks or months, but the number of people receiving palliative care for several years is increasing. Palliative care can also provide support for families and carers. For more details, see Palliative care.

How long have I got?

After a diagnosis of advanced cancer, some people want to know how long they have left to live, while others prefer not to know. It’s a very personal decision.

If you would like to know the expected outcome (prognosis) of the cancer, you will need to talk to your doctor. This is a difficult question for doctors to answer and you may find their response is vague. They may give you an estimate based on what usually happens to people in your situation, but can’t say exactly what will happen to you. The actual time could be longer or shorter.

Not all people with advanced cancer die from it – for some people, improved treatments can keep the disease under control for months or years. For other people, different health issues become more serious than the cancer.

When faced with the possibility of dying, some people think about what they’d like to achieve in the time they have left. They may begin to live day by day, or take control of their life by completing practical tasks, such as preparing a will or the funeral. For further details, see Planning ahead.

If you have questions about dying, call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 for a free copy of Facing End of Life: A guide for people dying with cancer, their family and friends, or download a digital copy on this page.

How do I find hope?

If you have been told you have advanced cancer and it is unlikely to be cured, you may find it hard to feel hopeful.

What you hope for may change with time. Sometimes, you may hope for good days with understanding company or the love of family and friends. You may find yourself hoping you will maintain your sense of independence or stay pain-free.

Some people explore activities they’ve never tried before and find hope in this new aspect of their lives. Others find hope in small projects, such as completing a scrapbook of their life or planning a trip with their family.

   − Roberta

While the cancer and its treatment can limit your activities, some people discover new strengths in themselves, and this gives them hope.

For some people, faith or spiritual beliefs can help them get through tough times. People who find hope in these beliefs describe feelings of optimism that are hard to explain to others. Cancer can also test people’s beliefs. Either way, you may find it helpful to talk to your spiritual or religious adviser, if you have one.

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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