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Cancer family caregivers during the palliative, hospice, and bereavement phases: A review of the descriptive psychosocial literature

  • Anna-Leila Williams (a1) and Ruth McCorkle (a2)

Because caregiving to an adult with cancer is a dynamic process, a caregiver's perceived burden and psychosocial concerns may be different at different phases of the patient's disease. There is evidence of escalation in caregiver anxiety, depression, and psychological distress as the patient's functional status declines and as the patient nears death. The purpose of this review was to organize the literature in a meaningful way that can potentially capture the unique needs of caregivers to patients receiving palliative and/or hospice care, and caregivers who are in the post-death bereavement phase.


A systematic review was conducted. Major databases were searched for non-intervention descriptive studies that included psychosocial variables of family caregivers to adults with cancer during the palliative, hospice, or bereavement phases.


The 19 studies reviewed were conducted in six countries and varied considerably by samples, outcome measures, methodologies, and analytic approaches. Despite limiting to the palliative, hospice, and bereavement phases, inconsistent results were found for key variables, such as age, gender, and relationship to the patient. When patient–caregiver dyad analysis was conducted, with rare exception, there was mutuality between the patient's condition and the caregiver's response. Across the 19 studies, 89 unique instruments were used, almost half of which were study specific with no psychometric testing reported.

Conclusions/significance of research:

As a direct consequence of assuming the caregiver role, cancer family caregivers in the palliative, hospice, and bereavement phases are at increased risk for physical and mental morbidity. Often, the psychological burden of the caregiver exceeds that of the critically ill patient. It is possible that distressed caregivers have a deleterious influence on patient well-being. This review demonstrates the need to develop research standards, especially regarding measurement instruments, so that caregiver research can mature and interventions can be developed to support family caregivers.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Anna-leila Williams, 131 Clifford Street, Hamden, CT 06517. E-mail:
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Palliative & Supportive Care
  • ISSN: 1478-9515
  • EISSN: 1478-9523
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