How Does Cancer Kill You?

Abnormal growth of cells leads to cancer or malignancy. Cancer can arise from any type of calls and can affect any organ in the body. The most common cancers are breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, skin cancer, lymphomas and prostate cancer. Signs and symptoms of cancer depend upon the type and site of cancer. Cancer can spread to other areas of body and some spreads more rapidly and aggressively than others.

The main forms of treatment are chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or a combination of them. Early detection and treatment can improve life expectancy but the scare of losing life stays. It can be fatal itself or can lead to life threatening complications. 

How does Cancer Kill You?

With latest advances in treatment options and availability of methods to detect cancer at an early stage the survival rate for cancer patients has dramatically improved. Some cancers are less fatal than others and some are 90% treatable.

How cancer kills you depends upon many factors. The type of cancer, the location of tumor, the organ involved and the rate at which it spreads, all play a role. Here are a few examples of how cancer can be life threatening.

  • If a tumor or cancer interferes with the function of a vital organ, it can lead to death. For example, a tumor growing in intestines can block them and lead to malnutrition; lung cancer can damage the lungs and they will not be able to supply oxygen to the body causing respiratory failure.
  • When cancer cells damage any organ, the chances of it getting infected increases many folds. The immune system of the body is also weakened and infections can be very difficult to control and treat and can prove to be fatal.
  • In normal circumstances, the body maintains electrolyte balance. Cancer can disrupt this balance and lead to life threatening electrolyte imbalance. Liver and kidneys detoxify the waste products and remove them from the blood stream. When they are damaged by malignancy, they lose this ability and the waste products can accumulate in the body and cause death.
  • How does cancer kill you? If the cancer involves the bones, huge amounts of calcium are released in the blood stream and this high calcium level can lead to dangerous consequences like unconsciousness, abnormal heart beat or even cardiac arrest.
  • When the cancer affects the bone marrow, it stops producing healthy blood cells. The abnormal red blood cells are not able to deliver oxygen to the body, the abnormal white blood cells are not able to fight infections and lack of healthy platelets can lead to hemorrhage. All these conditions are ultimately incompatible with life.

Cancer can be fatal through various other mechanisms of action as well; it can lead to dehydration, severe weight loss and many potentially life threatening complications like stroke, seizures and infections.

Signs That Death Is Near

Now you have a bit more understanding about "how does cancer kill you", here are a few signs and symptoms which indicate that the end is approaching. At this stage it is crucial to be realistic. The following are observed in the last weeks of life.

  • Weight loss, exhaustion and worsening weakness
  • Loss of appetite, inability to eat anything or to keep it down
  • Increased sleep
  • Loss of concentration, ability to talk, and interest in day to day activities
  • Preference to be with a very few close people

When the final days are approaching following signs and symptoms are generally present:

  • Rapid shallow breathing sometimes punctuated with long pauses
  • Gurgling or rattling sounds with breathing. At the end fluid accumulates in the airways and the person is not able to clear it. These sounds are due to the fluid accumulation.
  • Bluish discoloration of hands and feet and cold clammy skin due to poor blood supply
  • Dry lips and mouth
  • Incontinence
  • Restlessness and repetitive movements of limbs
  • Reduced urine output
  • Confusion and disorientation regarding time, place and person
  • Gradual loss of consciousness
  • Hearing or seeing people who are not there, hallucinations and dream like state

End-of-Life Care for Cancer Patient

How does cancer kill you? It depends on the type and location of the cancer. Whatever it is, it is hard to see a loved one losing the battle against cancer. This time can be extremely stressful for the family and the caregivers. The best thing is to keep the patient as comfortable as possible.

  • Keep the bed or chairs well cushioned and comfortable and change their position to prevent any bed sores.
  • Keep the bed sheets clean and change them regularly.
  • Keep the head end of the patient's bed elevated.
  • Keep them warm with the help of blankets.
  • Communicate in a clear voice and comforting tone.
  • They can become unresponsive or lose consciousness from time to time. Reassure them and say supportive things like "we love you", "everything is going to be ok" and "we are here for you".
  • If they are able to swallow, give them liquids with a spoon or a straw. Be careful and always prop them up while feeding.
  • Give them a gentle massage.
  • Sometime just being present or holding hands is the best way to offer support. A gentle touch conveys a strong message of care and love.
  • If they are conscious and want to talk about something, offer a sympathetic ear and listen to them.
  • Do not hide anything from them and encourage them to talk about their fears and anxieties.
  • Make sure that you respect their privacy and honor their last wishes.
  • If they are spiritually inclined towards any particular faith or want any support in this regard, try to offer it.
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