The last few days of life

It can be hard to predict what will happen in your last few days of life. Everyone’s experience will be different. You may feel weak, sleep a lot or possibly be a bit confused. You may feel detached from people around you and your surroundings.

You may want to spend time with the people close to you, talking or sitting quietly, or you may want some time alone.

You will probably need a lot of physical care. Your nurse can help or show your carers how to wash and bathe you, as well as how to move you safely. Your nurse can also show your carers how to look after your mouth and skin.

If your symptoms change, your medicines may need to be changed. Some medicines may be stopped. If you develop new symptoms, new medicines can be started. Other medicines may be made available in case you need them.

In the last few days of life

Each person’s experience of the last few days of life will be different. It can be difficult to predict exactly what will happen or how quickly changes will occur. Usually, you’ll gradually become very weak and have very little energy, but sometimes changes will happen more quickly. You may:

  • find it difficult to move around and need help getting from your bed to a chair
  • need to spend most, or all, of the day in bed
  • lose interest in eating
  • sleep a lot and feel drowsy when you’re awake
  • feel disorientated and unsure whether you’re dreaming
  • dream about people who aren’t there or that you knew in the past - your mind may bring up old memories
  • lose interest in your surroundings and even your close family.


Physical care

During your last few days, you will need a lot of help with things like washing and changing clothes. It may be strange to have to accept so much help but it can also be a time when you become very close emotionally to the people who are caring for you. If your carers need help to wash and bathe you, your district or specialist nurse can arrange this. They can also show your carers how to lift and move you safely.

Your mouth may become dry and need to be moistened regularly. Your district nurse can show your carers ways to look after your mouth. They can also put lip balm on to your lips to stop them getting dry and cracked.

It’s important that your carers moisturise your skin and help you change your position regularly. This is to stop your skin from getting sore. Your nurses can advise your carers on how to make sure you’re in a comfortable position when you’re unable to move yourself. You can use various pressure care aids to help keep you comfortable. These include:

  • cushions for chairs
  • mattresses for beds
  • special beds with pressure-relieving mattresses.

Your district nurse can assess what you need and arrange these for you.

There may be a lot of time when you don’t need to have anything done and you can just spend time with your relatives and friends. This can be a very intimate and special time. You can let them know whether you’d like to talk, have a quiet time or listen to music that you like. You can also let them know if you need some time on your own.


Symptoms

If your symptoms change, your medicines may also need to be changed. Some medicines may no longer be needed and may be stopped. If you develop new symptoms, new medicines can be started.

If you find it difficult to swallow, it’s possible to have your medicines either by injection, by patches stuck on to the skin or by using a syringe driver.


'Just-in-case' medicines

You may hear your doctor, district nurse or palliative care nurse talk about leaving a small case or box of medicines in your home ‘just in case’ you need them. This is because it can be difficult to get drugs quickly at night or at weekends. This might be a problem if you get more pain or start to feel or be sick. If you have just-in-case medicines in your home, it means that a nurse or doctor can give them to you without delay if you need them.

Just-in-case medicines usually include injections to help with pain, sickness, restlessness and fluids on your chest.


Working together to create information for you

We worked with Marie Curie Cancer Care to write our End of life information.

Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to develop.

You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network.

Back to Understanding what will happen

The last few weeks of life

During the last few weeks of life, you may have emotional and physical changes. Your healthcare team can help you cope with these.

Nearing death

Although death is a normal process, it is natural to worry about what will happen.