'Death Doulas' Help Patients With Cancer Face Their End of Life With Courage and Meaning

Dying does not have the be scary, and there are resources available to help patients and their loved ones, explained an expert.

Better care is needed for patients with late-stage cancer who may be facing the end of their life, and death doulas — also referred to as “soul doulas” or “end-of-life doulas” — may provide a resource that help patients and their family members cope with this difficult stage, according to Lorraine Holtslander.

“A death doula has education and expertise to support persons and families facing serious illnesses, including through death and grief,” Holtslander, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Nursing in Canada, said in an interview with CURE®. “The doula provides support to access needed resources, make the best decisions and planning and preparing ahead for critical illness.”

Death doulas can help “fill the gaps” between the clinical and personal side of care, explained Holtslander, as they aid patients and families in navigating the health care system while also ensuring that important aspects such as their culture, gender and sexuality are honored through the end of their life. They may also offer services such as aromatherapy and music therapy.

“More people are wanting to take control over how they manage life-threatening illnesses, be supported to do their own future planning and move away from a strictly medical approach to death and dying, toward a more natural end of life,” she said.

Holtslander noted that death doulas are just one aspect of often-underutilized end-of-life-care resources that may be available for patients and their families. She mentioned that palliative care is always appropriate for patients with serious illnesses like cancer and ensuring that patients’ wishes are met starts with a conversation.

“It is so important to know what are the values, wishes and beliefs of the person facing serious illness or end of life so that the best decisions will be made,” Holtslander said. “We all face end-of-life at some point. Let’s make it the best experience, filled with courage and meaning, as there are many choices and options to bring comfort to the person and family.”

Options for patients with late-stage cancer may include palliative care, which focuses on symptom management and psychosocial wellbeing and hospice, which is care for the end of life.

“Patients with advanced cancer should access palliative and hospice care sooner, rather than later, in the process, which research shows will increase both the quality and quantity of their days and time,” Holtslander said. “If a patient is wanting to die at home, supports can be in place, such as the palliative care team, hospice resources and information, and doulas to support family caregivers.”

Death doulas not only help the patient through the end of their life, but also support loved ones through the grieving process after the patient with cancer dies. These professionals may be utilized at any time throughout the process, from completing the advanced-care plan up until and after death.

“Death doesn’t need to be scary of painful; it can be a very beautiful, truly spiritual experience,” Holtslander said.

However, more needs to be done for patients with late-stage cancer facing the end of their life, according to Holtslander.

“We can do better for people with advanced cancer, providing them with the best options, individualized plans of care, and more control over what is happening to them,” she concluded.

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