Coping with the news

Hearing that you may be reaching the end of your life can be very difficult. You may know that your illness is progressing, but it can still be a shock to know you may not have long to live. You may feel strong emotions and may find it hard to think clearly. You may want to be alone, or with close family or friends. People close to you will also be feeling shocked and upset. As time passes, these emotions usually lessen.

Planning to spend time with people you love and focusing on what is most important can help and may make this time special. You may also want to deal with practical issues, including decisions about treatment or making a will.

Talking openly and honestly to others can be very important. If you would find it easier to talk to people outside your family and friends, there are professionals and support organisations who can help. They can also provide support for your family and friends. Some people find comfort in spiritual or religious beliefs.

Coping with the news your cancer can’t be cured

Hearing that you may be nearing the end of your life can be very difficult and distressing. You might find it hard to believe what you’re hearing, even if you know your illness is getting worse. You may experience strong and often overwhelming emotions that make it difficult for you to think clearly. You may need some time on your own or with your partner, a relative or a close friend to think about the future.

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.

Your feelings

You may experience many emotions when you hear you may be nearing the end of your life. You might feel angry because you feel more could have been done to prevent your illness, or diagnose it at an earlier stage. You may feel it’s very unfair that this is happening to you. You might fear what the future will bring.

You may also feel tearful and depressed, and unsure of how to cope with your feelings and emotions. Some people find it difficult to see life going on as normal around them when their own world has changed so much.

Most people have some, or all, of these feelings. But, as time passes, people often find that the distress gets less frequent and intense.

Facing an uncertain future

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 you may have months or weeks to live, it’s important to remember that this is an estimate. You may live longer or, unfortunately, you may live for less time than this.

You’ll probably have times when you feel well and positive about life, and times when you feel less well and have less energy.

Although your future may be uncertain, you may still find it helpful 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 things you want to think about before you die. These include:

  • where you want to be cared for
  • making a will
  • writing an Advance Decision to Refuse Treatment.

People close to you

When you’re reaching the end of your life, partners, family and friends become even more important and provide support and reassurance.

However, terminal illness can sometimes make relationships difficult. Many people find it hard to know what to say. You may find people react in unexpected ways. Some people may avoid talking about your illness completely. Others may be unrealistically cheerful, making it difficult for you to say how you feel.

Your partner, children or close friends may irritate you by being overprotective. 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 pretending it’s not happening. But 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. If you’ve always been close and talked a lot, there’s no reason not to continue to do this. When you don’t know what to say, a hug or holding hands can be very comforting.

If you’ve always argued a lot, don’t feel 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.

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. Their feelings and emotions will also change over time.

Some people find 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.

Macmillan’s cancer support specialists can provide advice and support for your family and friends. You can call them on 0808 808 00 00. You can also call the Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 2309 for information and support on living with a terminal illness, or caring for someone who has a terminal illness.

I felt that we actually drew closer together. We talked much more about what we meant to each other and the things that we’d enjoyed together.


Talking to others

People who have a terminal illness sometimes feel they have to be the strong one. They have to start the difficult conversations and support other people, 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 can talk openly about how you feel, your family and friends will learn how they can help you and what you’d like from them. You can choose the people you want to talk to and who you feel will be able to help you. You can plan when you want to talk to them and what you want to say.

Sometimes it can help to talk to someone outside your own family and friends, such as a counsellor or someone from 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 cancer, which you may find useful. You can also find information about having difficult conversations on the Marie Curie website.

Talking to children

There’s no easy way to talk to children 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 them information they can understand.

Children are often very aware of what is happening around them. Even if you don’t say anything, they will usually sense that something is wrong and may become frightened. If they are told that everything is fine, it may be difficult for them to talk about how they are feeling.

Children can also feel that they are somehow to blame for your illness, so it’s important to tell 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. Macmillan and the Marie Curie Palliative Care Institute Liverpool produce information that you may find helpful. This includes:

  • Saying goodbye – a series of leaflets for children and teenagers (Marie Curie Palliative Care Institute Liverpool)
  • Supporting toddlers and pre-school children when a parent or close relative is dying (Marie Curie Palliative Care Institute Liverpool)
  • Talking to children when an adult has cancer (Macmillan)
  • Talking to children when someone is dying (Marie Curie Palliative Care Institute Liverpool).

You can also find information about talking to children on the Marie Curie website.

Publications developed by the Marie Curie Palliative Care Institute Liverpool are available.

If you live alone

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 and frightened.

It’s all right 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. You could make a list of practical things that would make your life easier. If people offer to help but are not sure what to do, you can show it to them. They can then choose to do something that will help you.

Other people may be able to listen to you and share your worries and fears.

Marie Curie has a free helper service available in parts of the UK. Someone can come over for a cup of tea, help you get to an appointment, run an errand, or just be there to listen when you need a friendly ear. For more information, visit the Marie Curie website or call 0800 090 2309.

Your GP, social worker, or district or community nurse will also be able to tell you what help and support is available from health, social care and voluntary organisations.

Spiritual and religious issues

Towards the end of life, some people become more aware of religious beliefs or spiritual feelings. Thinking about the end of life can sometimes challenge what we believe. You may find you want to think and talk about what life means to you and explore your own experiences and beliefs.

Spirituality can be expressed in many ways, such as through music, arts, nature, or how you relate to your family or community.

Some people find comfort in prayer or meditation. And many gain support from knowing that other people are praying for them. But a person may start to question their faith, especially when they are suffering.

You may find it helpful to talk through your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust. You only need to share as much as you want to, and at a time when you feel ready. You can choose who you want to talk to, and who you feel will be able to support you.

This may be a close friend or family member, or a chaplain or religious leader. Don’t be put off talking to a chaplain or religious leader if you are not religious. They are used to dealing with uncertainty and being with people who are distressed. They are also usually very good listeners and may be able to help you work out your thoughts and feelings.

You can find information about spiritual issues on the Marie Curie website.

Working together to create information for you

We worked with Marie Curie Cancer Care to write our End of life information.

Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to develop.

You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network.

Back to Dealing with the news

Sorting things out

When people are nearing the end of their life, many find they have things they want to sort out.

Financial help

You may be worrying about your finances at a time when you least need it. Financial help is available.

Being cared for at home

If you choose to die at home, it’s important that you and your carers have as much support as possible.