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Helping loved ones deal with terminal disease

January 12, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Hearing the diagnosis of a terminal disease is hardest on the patient, but how family and friends react can have a big impact, in both a positive and negative way.

When all the options are seemingly exhausted, how can you help your loved one deal with a difficult diagnosis and avoid some common mistakes? How loved ones react can make all the difference for someone who is dying.

One mistake: not using the right language. Experts say we shouldn't talk about "winning" or "surviving," because when it's time to face death, it feels like "losing" or "failing" to the patient.

"Could we possibly see it as, 'You completed your life'?" said David Kessler, an expert on grief and dying.

Another mistake: not using hospice or palliative care. One study of more than 4,000 patients found hospice care extended survival for those with pancreatic cancer by three weeks, lung cancer by six weeks and heart failure by three months.

Mistake number three: suggesting aggressive treatment when it won't make the patient better. A recent study says two-thirds of patients will undergo therapies they don't want if it's what their loved ones want.

"The first thing you have to do is ask yourself: 'What would my loved one have wanted?'" said Kessler.

The last mistake: not asking for a physical reminder of your loved one, such as letters, a written story or a recorded message.

Another tip: You may want to rethink what doctors tell you about your loved one. One study found 40 percent of oncologists report offering treatments that they believe are unlikely to work. And 63 percent of doctors in a Harvard study overestimated the survival time of their patients.