Coping with a terminal diagnosis

Posted on: 01 March 2017 by 50connect editorial

There is no right or wrong way to react to the news that your illness is terminal. This page is about how you may feel and what can help you cope.

Coping with terminal diagnosis

Diagnosis of a terminal illness can be devastating, both for you, as the patient, and your loved ones. It is likely you will feel many different emotions and the reality is there is no right or wrong way to accept that your illness is no longer curable. Though you might not feel ready to take on board all of the points of this article - it is worth considering the choices you have and how best you can live with your illness, rather than focusing on something you cannot change.

Feelings about diagnosis

Nobody reacts in the same way to a diagnosis. We are all unique with our own quirks and foibles, and the way we deal with traumatic news differs from person to person. You'll find yourself questioning why and seeking answers, such as:

Why me?

Why didn’t the treatment work for me?

What will happen to my children?

It is natural to feel scared, it is equally natural to be upset and angry - indeed, some people never fully accept the finality of their diagnosis. Given the magnitude of the news you've been given your emotions are likely to vary from day to day - this is absolutely to be expected and you should feel no guilt when you are having one of the inevitable bad days.

You may find it helpful to talk to other people who have the same condition as you, or are living with a terminal illness. Ask your doctor or nurse about local support groups. Many specialist charities also offer support through forums like the Marie Curie Community or you can read more about 'Coping with your feelings' on the Marie Curie website.

How you choose to handle your diagnosis should be your decision. You mustn't allow yourself to be pressured into talking about it before you feel ready. This is a personal and emotional time so take your time.

When the upset and sadness is worrying you both, the relationship – emotionally and physically – will change. Don’t withdraw from your partner, as this will make you both feel anxious and isolated. Just sitting holding hands, lying down together, or cuddling can be a great comfort.

How to share your diagnosis with others

You will probably find that your diagnosis is like an elephant in the room; it is the topic that no one wants to acknowledge. However hard it might be to talk about your illness, making that first step to speak about it with your loved ones and friends can help them as much as it does you.

The importance of openly discussing your condition and how the practical matters of life are managed after you are gone is one of the most important things you can do for your family. You may find that those close to you are unable to confront issues such as finances and child care because they feel such guilt about it. Listening to your family and friend is a hugely important part of the support you offer and can help them. You may not know what to say or feel awkward because you don’t know how to comfort or reassure them. But often just being there will help. They may not want to talk about their diagnosis at all.

Knowledge empowerment

We fear the things we least understand, so it can be helpful to find out everything you can about your illness. Taking control of your condition helps to neutralise its power. Ask your doctor what physical, mental and emotional changes you should expect as your illness progresses. 

Coming to terms with a terminal illness and accepting it for what it is can be liberating and enable you to focus on the quality rather than quantity of the time you have left.

Making peace

Have no regrets! For many people who lose a loved one, not feeling able to fully express themselves before he/she passes on can be a terrible burden to shoulder. Making peace and, when necessary, saying goodbye, is an important part of your acceptance of the journey you are on, but of equal importance you also offer your family members and friends the opportunity to talk about their happy memories and reflect on the positive impact you have had on the lives of those around you. This is not the time, however, to rehash old arguments or engage in battles over hurt feelings. Most relationships have their ups and downs, so when time is short, highlighting the good times is in order.

Knowing that time is limited can be a blessing. Many people die suddenly, leaving no time for expressions of love, no time for the saying of things previously left unsaid. While stress and anxiety are natural offshoots of knowing that a death is coming, this advance warning also allows patients, as well as those in their inner circle, to fully express their feelings for one another. And when used properly, that time can be some of the most meaningful of all.

Remaining hopeful

It is important to still to have goals that can brighten your day. Some people refer to such goals as a bucket list, but they needn't be significant events - they could be small everyday targets such as making someone laugh or visiting a friend you haven't seen in years. The purpose of setting yourself these targets is that it helps you to normalise your day and your understanding of your condition. The outcome is not going to change but the way you deal with it certainly can. Rediscovering your sense of self at this time is hugely important to your psychological wellbeing and can help make the time you have left both rewarding and fulfilling.

Be prepared

Take time to document your wishes and take control of the final stages of your life - you will find it reassuring that your wishes are known to your family, friends and carers.

Not only is it prudent to sort out your financial obligations while you can, it unburdens those close to you and relieves stress at a very difficult time. Among things that should be dealt with are credit cards, insurance policies, mortgages and, of course, you Will.

It is also your right to determine how you choose to spend the period leading up to your passing. By writing a death plan, you can share how you want your final hours to be.

Choose those closest to you to involve in creating your plan. The process of identifying how you want to be helped as the end nears can be healing for all involved; confronting issues around your mortality is empowers and enables you to discuss things in the open. It is a good way of showing you have come to terms with the news, and that you want to reduce the sadness and anxiety of those around you.

Marie Curie cares for people living with terminal illness, and their families, offering expert guidance and support to help them get the most from the time they have left. This March, support the Great Daffodil Appeal to help Marie Curie Nurses be there for more people who need them.

Donate and wear your daffodil.

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