Treating cancer in someone with dementia

The cancer treatment offered to the person you are caring for will depend on their individual situation, but also on the stage of the dementia.

The person you care for may need to make decisions about cancer treatments.

Medical treatment cannot be given without the person’s consent. The person giving consent must have capacity. This means that they can understand the information given to them, and are able to make an informed decision.

Dementia can affect a person’s capacity. Health professionals can still give treatment if they believe it is the best thing to do. But they must try to speak to the person’s partner, family member or friend.

It is a good idea to help the person you care for think about how they would like to be cared for in the future. This means that if they are not able to make decisions for themselves you will know more about what they would want.

Their dementia specialist doctor or nurse will be able to give you advice about what kind of things they need to consider.

Treating cancer in someone with dementia

The cancer treatment offered to the person you are caring for will depend on their individual situation, but also on the stage of the dementia. Doctors and nurses who specialise in cancer can talk to you about which cancer treatments might help in their situation.


Benefits and disadvantages of treatment

Some people with cancer and dementia will be offered the standard treatment for the cancer. They may have to spend time in hospital.

The person you care for is likely to have side effects from cancer treatments. These are usually temporary and can be controlled with medicines.

For some people, treatment will cure the cancer. Other people may not respond to the treatment. This means that some people may have the side effects of treatment without any of the benefits.

Some people may not be well enough for standard treatment. This may be because of other health problems. Other people may choose not to have the standard treatment. Instead, they may have other treatments that give a lower dose of treatment or fewer treatments. They will usually spend less time in hospital and have fewer side effects. These types of treatment are given to control the cancer but they won’t get rid of it completely.

Sometimes the treatment stops working. If this happens, the person can still be given supportive or palliative treatment to help control symptoms. If someone is having problems with symptoms or side effects, they can have supportive treatments for any stage of cancer.

Talk to the person you care for about whether they would like to have treatment and what they might prefer. You could go with them to talk to their doctor about treatment options. You may also be able to talk about the possible benefits and side effects of treatment with a nurse.

We have more information about making treatment decisions, which you might find useful.


Giving consent

Before someone has any treatment, their doctor will explain the aims of the treatment. They will usually ask them to sign a form saying that they give permission (consent) for the hospital staff to give treatment. No medical treatment can be given without the person’s consent.

Before they are asked to sign a consent form, they should be given full information about:

  • the type and extent of the treatment
  • its advantages and disadvantages
  • any significant risks or side effects
  • any other treatments that may be available.


Capacity

For consent to be valid, the person giving consent must have capacity. This means that they must be able to:

  • understand all the information given to them
  • be able to make an informed decision.

A person with dementia must be able to remember the information for long enough to make an informed decision.

If someone has dementia, their capacity can be affected. The specialist doctor looking after them may need to check whether they can make an informed decision about treatment. 

If someone is not able to make a decision, health professionals can still give treatment if they believe it is in the person’s best interests. But they must try to get advice about the person’s wishes from a partner, family member or friend.

It can help the person you care for to think ahead, before their ability to make decisions is affected. They can write down how they would like to be cared for. It is helpful to give clear instructions about any treatments that they would or would not want to have. This is known as making Advance Decisions.

If you are the carer of someone with cancer and dementia, you may have to help them decide about treatment or make decisions for them. It can be difficult to know what to do. Talk to the dementia specialist doctor or nurse. They will be able to give you some advice about the best way to do this.

Alzheimer’s Society has a fact sheet called Making decisions and managing difficult situations that you may find useful.

The hospitals are very respectful and tactful in how they are with Dad. He still feels like he is important and has a say.

Mary, who cares for her father


Appointments and hospital visits

If you are the main carer of someone with cancer and dementia, you will probably go with them to their GP and hospital appointments. You may also visit the hospital during their treatment. 

During appointments, you can help by remembering and writing down information. You can also help the person you care for to describe any symptoms or problems they are having. If they have any questions before the appointment, you can prompt them and help them to remember what they wanted to ask.

You can also ask the health professional to communicate in ways that are helpful. It might help if the health professional:

  • faces the person you care for at the same level
  • makes eye contact when talking
  • keeps information simple, avoids medical words
  • repeats things if necessary
  • breaks information down into small chunks that are easy to understand
  • gives information in a quiet place without distractions.

If the person you are caring for is admitted to hospital, it is important that everyone involved in their care knows about their needs. It also helps if people know what the current care plan is or if anything has changed.

Alzheimer’s Society has an information form called This is me. It can be filled out by people with dementia and their carers. The form is helpful for the person with dementia if they are in an unfamiliar place, such as hospital or respite care, especially if they are having problems communicating.

Having consultants and doctors wearing ID badges makes such a difference. Just because they introduce themselves at the start doesn’t mean you will remember it.

George, a member of the Great Camden Minds DEEP group

Back to Dementia and cancer

Advanced cancer and dementia

If it is not possible to control the cancer, the person you care for will be able to have treatments to manage any symptoms.