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Management of the Symptoms of Advanced Cancer

written by: Ms Lisa • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 3/13/2011

The symptom management in advanced cancer is important. However, some of the same methods to treat cancer assure comfort and quality of life for the people who have advanced cancer.

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    What is the Difference Between Treating Cancer and Managing the Symptoms?

    A person will need symptom management in advanced cancer to keep them as comfortable as possible. When a person is at this stage of cancer, they still experience symptoms that need treatment, so that they can maintain comfort and quality of life. Although, the treatment may be the same, the reason for the treatment is different. At this stage of cancer, the focus shifts from the cure, to maintaining the symptoms a person experience.

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    How is it Determined What Options to Use?

    Depending on the type of cancer that a person has, and the symptoms they experience, determine the options available to them. The physician will explain what options will benefit rather then bring more suffering to the patient.

    The condition of the person is a key factor. The person who has advanced cancer will also have to make a decision on what they want too. Care that is the focus to improving the quality of life, and relieving suffering is referred to as palliative care.

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    Pain Management

    Pain is a concern for a person at this stage of cancer. Pain medications are given in different forms. Sometimes they are given by a patch, by mouth, a shot or by IV.

    Some of the most popular drugs used are oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine. It has been proven that opioids yield the best results in people that experience cancer pain. Sometimes anti-inflammatory drugs are also used to relive pain.

    Sometimes a doctor may suggest chemo or radiation therapy because they do kill the cancer cells. They may recommend hormone therapy to slow down the growth of the cancer cells.

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    Constipation

    Constipation is a common problem that people experience that can bring discomfort. The main causes of constipation is because of some of the medications, decreased activity and exercise, change in diet, and blood and chemistry changes in the body such as too little potassium or too much calcium.

    Constipation is often treated with stool softeners and laxatives. The physician may also encourage the person to drink more fluids and mild exercise. He may also may suggest eating more fiber.

    The doctor would evaluate the person to make sure that there is no bowel blockage or obstructions.

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    Nausea and Vomiting

    Nausea and vomiting can be a symptom of the cancer itself. It can also be caused by constipation and certain medications that the person is taking. If a person is experiencing too much vomiting it can be dangerous because this can lead to dehydration and aspiration.

    These symptoms can be treated by a change in diet and by medications. It is important to treat these symptoms as soon as possible so that they do not become too severe and add to the suffering.

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    Fatigue

    Fatigue is a type or tiredness that is caused by emotional stress, pain, anemia, depression, poor nutrition, insomnia or by the cancer itself.

    The options for treating these symptoms are medications that increase red blood cells or blood transfusions. The doctor may suggest resting more or may prescribe medications that would help the individual get more sleep. Stimulant drugs are often used to overcome this symptom. The treatment would be determined on the cause of the fatigue.

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    Depression

    Depression should not be excluded from the symptom management in advanced cancer. It is estimated that one in four people who have advanced cancer experience depression.

    Untreated depression can lead to loss of appetite or overeating and in severe cases can lead to suicide.

    Depression can be treated with medications and counseling by a mental health professional. They are trained to help a person make the most of their circumstance.

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    Treatment for Other Symptoms

    Many people with advanced cancer may experience other symptoms. Some of them may be confusion, bowel obstructions, hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the blood), skin problems, spinal cord compression, kidney and bladder infections and shortness of breath.

    All of the symptoms can be treated. It is important that whatever symptom may arise, to report them to the attending physician. This is because there are several treatments available to treat them and not doing so would only prolong suffering and not promote the comfort of the individual.