Coping with the news that your cancer can't be cured
Hearing the news that you may be reaching the end of your life can be very difficult. You may be aware that your illness is progressing, but you might find it hard to believe what you’re hearing, or feel that it’s like a nightmare and you’ll wake up and find it’s not true.
The initial shock and disbelief may be replaced after a few hours or days by powerful and often overwhelming emotions. These may make it difficult for you to think clearly. You’re likely to need some time on your own or with your partner, a relative or close friend to deal with the news.
Some people find it easier to talk to someone outside their family. If you think this would be helpful, you can talk to your doctor or specialist nurse, or you can search for a useful support organisation to contact. They will be able to talk things through with you.
You may have many different emotions. You may feel angry because you feel more could have been done to prevent your illness. You may feel that it’s very unfair that this is happening to you. You may fear what the future will bring.
You may also find yourself tearful and depressed, and unsure of how to cope with all the feelings and emotions you have. Some people are stunned and resentful to see life going on as normal around them when their own world is in turmoil.
Most people have some, or all, of these emotions. But, as time passes, people generally find that the distress gets less frequent and intense.
Facing an uncertain future
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No one can be sure how long you will live and your doctors or nurses may be reluctant to give you a timescale. Even if one of your doctors has suggested that you may have months or weeks to live, perhaps because you asked them directly, it’s important to remember that this is just an estimate.
You may live longer or, unfortunately, you may live for less time than this.
You’ll probably have good days when you feel well and positive about life, and bad days when your energy reserves are lower. Although the future may seem uncertain, for many people it’s important to plan ahead and make the most of the days when you feel well. You may want to plan to do some nice things with your family and friends. There may also be important issues that you want to consider before you die. For example, deciding where you want to die, making a will or writing an Advance Decision to Refuse Treatment.
When you’re reaching the end of your life, it doesn’t mean that you have less need for love, companionship, friendship and fun. For many people, partners, family and friends become even more important and are a vital source of support and reassurance.
However, serious illness can strain relationships and many people find it difficult to know what to say. You may find that people react in unexpected ways. Some may try to deny the seriousness of the situation by being unrealistically cheerful, which can make it difficult for you to say how you feel. Other people may try to avoid you, rather than risk saying the wrong thing. Some people may avoid talking about your illness completely, while others may appear to be unsympathetic.
Your partner, children or close friends may irritate you by being overprotective or trying to ‘wrap you in cotton wool’. Sometimes, close family and lifelong friends may feel like strangers, just at the time when you need them most.
Sometimes, partners try to protect each other from the truth by denying it, even though both are aware of what’s happening. Talking openly with each other about your feelings can help support both of you through sadness, anxiety and uncertainty. You may find that your relationship becomes stronger as you face the challenge of your illness together.
It’s important to keep your relationship as normal as possible. So if you’ve always been close and talked a lot, try to continue to do this. When words fail you or don’t seem enough, a hug or holding hands can be very comforting. If you’ve always argued a lot, don’t feel that you must try to change this. There are bound to be times when you don’t get on well. If you argue, having short breaks from each other can help you think more calmly and recharge your emotional energy.
Remember that everyone will be shocked by the news. Your family and friends are also dealing with powerful emotions, and may need help and support to deal with them. People’s initial reactions don’t necessarily reflect their true feelings. Our cancer support specialists can provide advice and support for your family and friends.
Many people who are reaching the end of their lives find that their relationships improve as they, and the people close to them, realise what’s really important. You may become much closer to some people. Your illness can also be an opportunity for you and others to get back in touch, or resolve past arguments or bad feelings.
People who have cancer or another serious illness sometimes feel that a lot of responsibility rests with them. They may feel that they are the one who has to be strong. They have to start the difficult conversations and help other people face the illness, even though they are the one who is ill.
If you’re unwell or feeling low, it can be very difficult to do this. But if you’re able to talk openly about how you feel, your family and friends will probably be relieved and able to respond. They will learn how best they can help you and what you’d like from them.
You can choose the people who you want to talk to and who you feel will be able to support you. You only need to share as much as you want to, and at a time when you feel ready.
Sometimes talking to someone outside your own close circle, such as a counsellor or a support organisation. You can search on our website to find a useful organisation to contact for support.
We have more information about talking about your cancer, which you may find useful.
There’s no easy way to talk to children or grandchildren about the fact that you’re very ill and nearing the end of your life. It’s often best to be as open with them as you can, and give information appropriate to their age.
Children can be very aware of things happening around them. Even if you don’t say anything, they will usually sense that something is wrong. They may become frightened and their fears can sometimes be worse than the reality. If they are then told that everything is fine, they may find it hard to trust you. Children can also feel that they are somehow to blame for your illness, so it’s important to reassure them that it’s not their fault.
How and what you choose to tell them depends on their age and how much they can understand. We have more information about talking to children when an adult has cancer.
It may be very hard to keep positive and be optimistic if you live alone. Even though you may value your independence, being ill can make you feel very lonely.
It’s okay to ask for help. People who care about you will want to help in any way they can. Some people will find it difficult to talk, but may be happy to help in more practical ways, such as doing your shopping or helping with your garden.
Other people may be able to keep you company, listen to you and share your worries and fears.
Your GP, district or community nurse will also be able to tell you what help and support is available from health, social care and voluntary organisations.