It is possible that, due to illness or injury, you may become unable to talk to a doctor or make personal medical decisions. By planning in advance, you can help make sure that any wishes about your treatment will be followed. This is true for short-term and long-term illnesses. If you do not plan ahead, your family may not know what your wishes are or be allowed to fulfill them.

Why Is Advance Care Planning Necessary?

In periods of good health, it can be difficult to imagine feeling otherwise. Many families find speaking about serious illnesses and end-of-life issues difficult, but professionals indicate that stress and worry can be ultimately reduced when these are discussed in advance.

How can my doctor and I be on the same page? In order to have a transparent relationship with doctors, let them know what your wishes are and provide them with any information and documentation they need. This is especially important when facing any serious illness. “Advance care planning” describes the discussions you should have with your family in order to tell the doctor about the care you prefer at the time of diagnosis and treatment. This will allow your doctor to get to know you better and join you as a partner in your treatment. It will also give you and your family more control over your medical care and a sense of well-being. For the best care, you need to be a team.

How can I get the best medical care? We encourage families to talk to one another and discuss the types of care preferred in times of serious illness. These conversations can decrease the stress and burden that family members feel when difficult decisions have to be made in times of crisis or when loved ones are unable to make decisions for themselves. Having a plan in place in case of emergencies means that everyone has the information to make the most thoughtful decisions.

Is talking about serious illness or cancer bad luck? No. Unfortunately, people become ill even if they do not think or talk about it. Health care professionals believe that discussing and planning for serious illness leads to better care and more control for you and your family. Speaking openly about illness leads to better decisions and better quality of life.

How do I start to think about the kind of health care I want? Many people choose to speak with their family, friends, their health care team or spiritual leaders when trying to decide the type of care they would want. It is equally helpful to think about the medical care a friend or loved one received at the end of life and consider what you valued about their care.

Here are some possible questions that might be helpful in starting these types of conversations with your loved ones:

  • What does good quality of life mean to you?

  • How important is it to you to remain independent?

  • Are you concerned about letting another adult make medical decisions for you, if you are unable? What worries you most?

  • Are there any medical treatments you would surely want when facing the end of life? Any treatments you might refuse?

  • When thinking about serious illness, what are you concerned about?

  • What role do you want your family to have in making decisions about your health care?

  • If your family wants to protect you from receiving information, should the medical team honor these wishes?

  • What does “dying with dignity” mean to you?

  • What does “dying a peaceful death” mean to you?

Online Resource: The Conversation Project can provide additional resources for you and your loved ones.

Edited by Leeann Medina-Martinez, LMSW

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This fact sheet is supported by Bristol Myers Squibb.

Last updated June 02, 2020

The information presented in this publication is provided for your general information only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are aware of your specific situation. We encourage you to take information and questions back to your individual health care provider as a way of creating a dialogue and partnership about your cancer and your treatment.

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