Alleviating existential distress of cancer patients: Can relational ethics guide clinicians?

Doris Y Leung, M. J. Esplen

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Most people have a heightened awareness of death at the moment they receive a cancer diagnosis. Medical treatment attempts to demystify and manage death, yet surprisingly, care that alleviates existential distress is the least provided psychosocial care. A review of empirical research [quantitative and qualitative studies (n = 85) and seven literature reviews] was conducted to explore the experiences of clinicians (primarily nurses) working with cancer patients who experience existential distress. This paper summarizes clinicians' experiences with cancer patients who face the threat of mortality. Given that the majority of literature was found to be in nursing, emphasis in this paper tends to be on nurses' experiences. However, findings are suggested to have implications for other clinicians who deal with similar concerns. A lens of relational ethics was inductively found to organize and highlight problems and gaps that originate from interpersonal concerns. This paper describes four themes requiring further research and education related to existential distress: engagement, embodiment, environment and mutual respect. Implications for oncology care are suggested at the micro-, meso- and macro-levels to encourage clinicians to ethically respond to patients' existential distress needs.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-38
Number of pages9
JournalEuropean Journal of Cancer Care
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Cancer
  • Clinicians
  • Ethics
  • Existential distress
  • Palliative care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology


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