Though it impacts millions of people across the U.S., an individual’s life takes a drastic turn the moment they hear the words “you have breast cancer.” October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the stats can be sobering:

  • 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 85.
  • An estimated 30% of all new cancer diagnoses will be breast cancer this year.
  • 3.8 million U.S. women have a history of breast cancer.

Breast cancer patients fight valiantly with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments, but sometimes the diagnosis comes too late or the cancer is unresponsive to treatment. This year alone, an estimated 40,000 U.S. women are projected to succumb to breast cancer.

Once treatments are no longer effective or desired, patients and families have a choice. They can continue to fight and endure life-altering side effects and hospitalizations or they can accept hospice care services and spend their final months or weeks at home surrounded by loved ones. 

According to Seeley Avery, VP of Marketing at Heart to Heart Hospice, the number one comment in family satisfaction surveys is: “I only wish we would have gotten hospice care for my loved one sooner.”

End-stage cancer patients often feel out of control, losing their sense of self and the ability to function and make decisions. Family members often feel helpless. But choosing hospice restores a patient’s ability to set goals and get needed pain relief for the final months of life — in a holistic way that meets medical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Qualifying for Hospice

To qualify for hospice eligibility, doctors and patients must determine treatments are no longer working or no longer desired, and the life expectancy of the patient is six months or less. End-stage cancer patients can then tap into the vast resources of hospice care, covered almost 100% by Medicare. 

According to the NHPCO (2019 Facts), the average length of service for hospice care was 96 days with a median length of stay 18 days, while average care for the principal diagnosis of cancer was only 46 days. Further, stats show cancer deaths are increasing, but the portion of hospice beneficiaries with a primary cancer diagnosis is decreasing. This means many cancer patients are missing out on weeks of palliative comfort care and support. 

Though difficult to approach with loved ones and doctors, end-of-life conversations and discussions about goals for care should occur earlier in the treatment process so quality of life can be achieved to the end.

Heart to Heart Hospice, which serves areas of Texas, Michigan, and Indiana, offers a specialized program called Care Bridge Cancer Care that focuses on pain and symptom management, caregiver education, emotional support and more. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Heart to Heart Hospice wants patients and caregivers to know there is a better way to live for those with end-stage breast cancer. 

Goals of Hospice Cancer Care

Aggressive, invasive treatments may result in a poor quality of life and, as a result, a more difficult grief period for loved ones. Families often say, “It’s so hard to watch my loved one struggle and be so sick. I wish I could make it better.” While chemo and other cancer treatments are focused on curing the disease (at times unsuccessfully with dramatic side effects), the focus of hospice care is comfort and dignity.

Once referred to hospice, a hospice care team member meets with the patient and family to determine their wishes and goals. Most patients desire pain and symptom management, a place for caregivers to get support and respite, and a chance to take back control. Families can outline their bucket-list items, like attending one last family event, and hospice teams can coordinate to help those become a reality. 

Most patients want to spend their final weeks and days at home surrounded by loved ones, not constrained by hospital policies or visiting hours. With hospice care at home, patients experience being in their own room, in their own pjs, with momentos and pictures of a life well lived, surrounded by pets and loved ones. Hospice coverage can also apply to patients in residential care facilities, hospitals, and inpatient centers.

Heart to Heart Hospice’s Care Bridge Cancer Care program offers a team approach with specially trained staff who lead with knowledge and compassion. Goals for end-of-life cancer care include:

  • Aggressive symptom management at home to help avoid hospitalizations, including pain, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and discomfort
  • Better communication with clinicians with the Self-Assessment Pain & Symptom Journal
  • Covered medications, medical equipment (like beds and oxygen), and disposable supplies for daily care
  • Consultations with primary doctors and oncologists to determine if any treatments are palliative and can continue
  • Regular nurse visits with frequency based on progression of disease
  • Compassionate spiritual and psychosocial support for grief, counseling, and end-of-life planning by experienced staff helping families as patients approach death
  • Guidance on symptoms relating to the final stages of life and navigating resuscitation wishes
  • 24/7 support via an on-call nurses line
  • Routine home care with nurse visits, aide support for help with bathing and other needs, trained hospice volunteers for comfort care 
  • Short-term respite care to provide caregivers a needed break
  • Recording family memories or special messages in a Memory Journal
  • A comprehensive support booklet full of practical help (Patient and Family Handbook)
  • Grief and bereavement support for families up to 13 months after loss

For cancer patients with a very short life expectancy, Heart to Heart Hospice offers a Rapid Response Team that can include the following: daily visits for certain disciplines, expedited medications and administration options due to rapidly changing symptoms, accelerated advanced directives and funeral planning, and earlier social worker access.

Cancer Hospice Outcomes

Case studies show that cancer patients who utilize hospice benefits often live longer and are more comfortable, which also helps ease caregiver stress and anxiety. Those extra days provide more opportunities for making final memories and sharing loving good-byes. 

If you’re one of the many patients diagnosed with breast cancer, remember these important steps during Breast Cancer Awareness Month:

  • Make your end-of-life wishes known even if it’s early in your treatment, to alleviate potential stress down the road.
  • Have important conversations with loved ones. Record special memories or messages.
  • If you have end-stage breast cancer, take advantage of hospice care early for your own comfort and dignity.