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Open Access Research article

The broad spectrum of unbearable suffering in end-of-life cancer studied in dutch primary care

Cees DM Ruijs13*, Ad JFM Kerkhof23, Gerrit van der Wal13 and Bregje D Onwuteaka-Philipsen13

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Public and Occupational Health, VU University Medical Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

2 Department of Clinical Psychology, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

3 EMGO + Institute for Health and Care Research, Palliative Care Centre of Expertise, VU University Medical Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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BMC Palliative Care 2012, 11:12  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-11-12

Published: 1 August 2012

Abstract

Background

Unbearable suffering most frequently is reported in end-of-life cancer patients in primary care. However, research seldom addresses unbearable suffering. The aim of this study was to comprehensively investigate the various aspects of unbearable suffering in end-of-life cancer patients cared for in primary care.

Methods

Forty four general practitioners recruited end-of-life cancer patients with an estimated life expectancy of half a year or shorter. The inclusion period was three years, follow-up lasted one additional year. Practices were monitored bimonthly to identify new cases. Unbearable aspects in five domains and overall unbearable suffering were quantitatively assessed (5-point scale) through patient interviews every two months with a comprehensive instrument. Scores of 4 (serious) or 5 (hardly can be worse) were defined unbearable. The last interviews before death were analyzed. Sources providing strength to bear suffering were identified through additional open-ended questions.

Results

Seventy six out of 148 patients (51%) requested to participate consented; the attrition rate was 8%, while 8% were alive at the end of follow-up. Sixty four patients were followed up until death; in 60 patients interviews were complete. Overall unbearable suffering occurred in 28%. A mean of 18 unbearable aspects was present in patients with serious (score 4) overall unbearable suffering. Overall, half of the unbearable aspects involved the domain of traditional medical symptoms. The most frequent unbearable aspects were weakness, general discomfort, tiredness, pain, loss of appetite and not sleeping well (25%-57%). The other half of the unbearable aspects involved the domains of function, personhood, environment, and nature and prognosis of disease. The most frequent unbearable aspects were impaired activities, feeling dependent, help needed with housekeeping, not being able to do important things, trouble accepting the situation, being bedridden and loss of control (27%-55%). The combination of love and support was the most frequent source (67%) providing strength to bear suffering.

Conclusions

Overall unbearable suffering occurred in one in every four end-of-life cancer patients. Half of the unbearable aspects involved medical symptoms, the other half concerned psychological, social and existential dimensions. Physicians need to comprehensively assess suffering and provide psychosocial interventions alongside physical symptom management.