How Hospice Care Helps in the Last Stage of Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on May 10, 2024
5 min read

There may come a time when you decide to stop treatments for your breast cancer. But that doesn’t mean that supportive care ends. Hospice can provide comfort to you and your family. The goal is to make the last months of your life as comfortable and as peaceful as possible.

Hospice care treats the symptoms of the disease and side effects of its treatment – both physical and emotional – rather than the disease itself. It’s never too early to talk to your cancer care team about it. You and your loved ones should know how to get the most out of your end-of-life care and when to seek it.

Hospice care is a type of palliative care for anyone in the last phase of life. That generally means your doctor has told you that you have 6 months or less to live. But with advanced breast cancer, it can be hard to predict exactly how much time someone has left.

You qualify for hospice care as long as you meet the following conditions:

  • You’re no longer receiving breast cancer treatment.
  • Your doctor thinks you’re likely to die within the next 6 months.

Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers cover hospice services. You may have very little out-of-pocket costs but check with your provider to learn more about your coverage. Your end-of-life care should be covered by health insurance even if you live longer than expected.

Most services take place in your home. You can also get hospice care in the following places:

  • Standalone hospice centers
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Long-term care facilities

Along with your breast cancer doctor, your hospice care team might include a:

  • Hospice doctor
  • Registered nurse
  • Home health aide
  • Psychologist or psychiatrist
  • Dietitian
  • Speech, physical, or occupational therapist
  • Your closest family or friends

Through hospice, you also have access to:

  • Spiritual counselors
  • Grief counselors
  • Trained hospice volunteers

Advanced breast cancer affects everyone differently. Your hospice team will visit you on a regular basis to see what kind of care you need. They won’t stay with you around the clock, but you or a loved one can call your hospice program 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Your hospice care team can:

Treat your symptoms. You might feel good when you first stop breast cancer treatment. But your hospice team will help ease any symptoms that show up later on. You might have pain, breathlessness, fatigue, restlessness, or trouble thinking clearly.

Your care team will come up with a tailored plan to help you feel better, which might include:

  • Medication to keep you comfortable
  • Antipsychotics for serious confusion
  • Physical therapy
  • Massage
  • Advice on what to eat
  • Equipment such as hospital beds, oxygen, or a wheelchair or other mobility aid

Offer emotional support. Depression can be a symptom of breast cancer or breast cancer treatment. It’s natural to go through a lot of emotions when you have a terminal illness. A counselor or psychologist can help you find peace of mind.

During the last stage of life, it’s common to have feelings such as:

  • Anxiety or fear about death
  • Hopelessness
  • A shift in how you view your self-identity
  • Worry about leaving your loved ones

Look after your spiritual well-being. Along with mental health professionals, hospice programs work with chaplains and other spiritual advisors. You don’t need to be religious to benefit from this kind of care. Spiritual support might include prayer, meditation, or talks about dying and the meaning of life.

Help with practical needs. Home health aides can help you complete daily activities, such as bathing, eating, and getting dressed. Social workers can help you sort out childcare, financial concerns, or get other personal affairs in order. Volunteers may be able to help with simple chores around the house.

Give you special services or companionship. Ask your hospice what they offer. Some programs provide art or music therapy. Trained volunteers can also do things such as:

  • Visit with you to talk and listen
  • Read to you
  • Play cards or other games
  • Help you write letters
  • Offer pet therapy

If you are the caregiver of someone with late-stage breast cancer who is in hospice, whether it’s home or inpatient hospice, the hospice nurse is there to support you, too. If your loved one is in inpatient hospice, the hospice nurse or social worker is often the point person for updates on your loved one. If your loved one is at home, the nurse is typically the point person for symptom management at home. You can bring the nurse any concerns you have about your loved one's condition and symptoms, death, or the dying process.

Hospice can also care for caregivers and loved ones in the following ways:

Respite care. A home health aide or hospice volunteer can stay with your loved one when you need a break. You can get short-term relief for an afternoon or several days a week. Medicare will pay for in-patient respite care for up to 5 days a month.

As a caregiver, you can use respite care whenever you need a little time away. That might include if you:

  • Need to run errands or go to the doctor
  • Want to go to the gym or the movies
  • Take a short vacation or go to a special event
  • Want some quiet time at home

Grief support. Through hospice, you can get one-on-one or group counseling before your loved one dies and continue for up to 1 year after their death. Hospice can refer you to a mental health professional if you need long-term help processing your loss.

Ask your doctor to help you find services in your area. A hospital discharge planner, social worker, or other member of your cancer care team may also be a good resource.

Check with your insurance provider to see what kind of hospice benefits you can get and which programs you or your loved one can use. Coverage may vary depending on whether you have a government or private plan.

You can also find hospice programs through national groups such as:

  • National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
  • National Association for Home Care and Hospice Care
  • American Cancer Society

When searching for a hospice provider, here are some questions you might want to ask:

  • Is the program covered by Medicare?
  • Can you talk to other families who’ve used the hospice program?
  • Which insurance plans does the hospice accept?
  • How often can you get home visits?
  • Do they offer both home and inpatient hospice?
  • If they don’t offer inpatient hospice, where will you go for inpatient care?
  • Do they have a 24-hour helpline?

It’s OK to change hospice providers if the one you start with isn’t a good fit. Ask your insurance provider how you can do that without having to take a break from your supportive care.