Controlling advanced cancer symptoms
Your doctor may suggest that no further treatment can be given to control your cancer. This does not mean that ‘nothing more can be done’, but that the aim of your treatment is changing.
Rather than trying to shrink the cancer, the aim of treatment will now be to ease troublesome or distressing symptoms and to help you gain the best possible quality of life.
Not everyone with advanced cancer has pain, but if you do it can usually be well controlled with medicines. If you have pain it’s important to let your doctor know so that it can be treated. Mild painkillers, such as paracetamol, may work well for you but sometimes stronger drugs are needed. Your medical team will work with you to develop the best pain control plan for your situation.
Other treatments can also be used to relieve pain, including radiotherapy, nerve blocks, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), acupuncture, hypnotherapy and relaxation techniques. Specialist pain clinics offer these methods of pain control. Your GP or cancer specialist can refer you to a specialist pain clinic or to a symptom control team.
Many people with advanced cancer notice a change in their eating habits. These may be related to a loss of appetite or to difficulties caused by changes in the way you smell and taste food. Some cancers cause particular problems such as difficulty swallowing.
There are many reasons why your eating habits can change. Treatments and medicines can affect how you feel about eating. Feeling sick, or having diarrhoea or constipation can stop you wanting to eat. Feeling low in mood, tired or being in pain can also make eating difficult. Eating habits can be affected even if the cancer is causing no other problems. Losing your appetite can be part of your body’s response to cancer.
Even if you are still eating well, you may lose weight and muscle because the cancer can change the way your body uses the goodness in your food. If you’re concerned about weight loss or about changes in your eating habits, talk to your nurse or doctor. They will be able to assess the reason for the change, and the cause may be treatable. You can also ask to see a dietitian who can help you find ways to eat well.
Food is often a way of showing that we care. People close to you may have concerns if you’re eating less and may not understand the reasons for this. This can lead to disagreements over what your diet should be. You may find it helps if you explain why you find it hard to eat, for example if food tastes different or if you feel full quickly.
If you’re living with advanced cancer, it’s your quality of life that’s important. Try to be pleased with what you have managed to eat rather than worry about what you couldn’t eat. Think about what you enjoy and what you can manage. Choose from these foods or drinks those that will give you energy and protein and those that you enjoy and look forward to. You will then be eating as well as you can without letting food have a negative impact on your quality of life.
Other symptoms you may have and which can be treated or relieved include:
Many of these symptoms are discussed in our section, controlling the symptoms of cancer.