Supportive Care in Cancer

, Volume 16, Issue 7, pp 853–862 | Cite as

Dying cancer patients’ experiences of powerlessness and helplessness

  • Lisa Sand
  • Peter Strang
  • Anna Milberg
Original Article


Goals of work

Experiences of powerlessness and helplessness are closely linked to incurable diseases but seldom studied in patients with disseminated cancer. The aim is to explore the perception, experiences and significance of powerlessness and helplessness, to study triggering factors and to make quantifications.

Materials and methods

One hundred three patients, enrolled in four different palliative home-care settings, completed a questionnaire with both Likert-type questions and open-ended questions. The response rate was 58%, and background data was reported as frequencies, whereas the main material was analysed using a qualitative content analysis.

Main results

Impending death, symptoms, loss of control and autonomy, ignorance, isolation and uncertainty constituted the basis for powerlessness and helplessness, but each factor was reinforced by the occurrence of suddenness, high intensity and/or lengthiness. In total, 65% reported definite experiences of powerlessness and helplessness. These feelings also held a deeper meaning, involving aspects such as existential loneliness and hopelessness. They were ultimately caused by an incapacity to control feelings and cope with the situation related to the impending death. The results are discussed in relation to Cassel’s theory of suffering and existential psychology.


Powerlessness Helplessness Palliative care Existential Cancer 



We thank the Swedish Cancer Society, The Cancer and Traffic Injury Fund (CTRF) and Stockholm County Council for financial support. We will also like to thank Professor Carol Tishelman and Tamarind Translations, for their linguistic revision.

Supplementary material


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ASIH Långbro ParkUnit for Palliative Medicine and Advanced Medical Home CareÄlvsjöSweden
  2. 2.Department of Oncology and Pathology, Karolinska InstituteStockholms Sjukhem FoUUStockholmSweden
  3. 3.Department of Social And Welfare Studies, Linköping University, LAH/Unit for Palliative Care, University Hospital, LinköpingPalliative Education and Research Centre in the County of Östergötland, SwedenNorrköpingSweden

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