Difficult questions when you are dying | Cancer Research UK
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Difficult questions when you are dying

Coping with cancer

Read about the difficult questions people might want to ask when they have a terminal illness and know they have only a few weeks or months to live. There are sections about


What you may need to ask

There are some questions that are very commonly asked by people who know they are dying. Probably the most common are 'how long do I have' and 'what will happen'. No one can predict the future, but your doctor and nurses should be able to help with these to some extent.

You are likely to have many other questions for your medical staff and for close friends and family. Some of these will also be very hard to answer. But it is very important to talk about your concerns. Even if you know there are no complete answers to these questions, you may still feel it’s important to ask.


How long have I got left to live?

Patients and their families often want to know how long a person is expected to live. Your doctor won’t be able to give you an exact answer. Everyone is different and no one can say exactly how long you will live. But do ask if you feel you need to. You can explain that you don‘t expect them to be completely accurate, but that you need to plan the time you have left. They should be able to base their estimate on how long other people with your type and stage of cancer have lived.

Remember that your doctor’s answer is an estimate. The actual time could be shorter or longer than they say. It is easier for doctors to estimate a likely time if they have been treating you for a while and they know you well. The doctors and nurses you see regularly will have an idea of how things are going for you. Over time, they should be able to give you some idea of how long you have left to live, although they can never be exact.

It may be extremely difficult for you, if your doctors tell you that you only have a very short time left (for example, weeks). You may have to make some serious decisions based on this information. If your doctor estimates a time and you live longer, it may feel very strange. Some people say they feel as though other people are waiting for them to die. It can help to talk this through with someone, so that you can share your feelings during this time.


What is it going to be like when I am dying?

Dying from cancer is usually a process that happens a bit at a time. Your body will get weaker and eventually start to shut down. This may happen over weeks and then days in the final stages. Many people worry that they will be in pain or discomfort when they die. But your doctors and nurses will focus on keeping you pain free and comfortable.

Some people want to know who will be with them and what will happen to their body once they die.


Other questions

You may have other questions, such as

  • Where will I go?
  • Will the people left behind remember me?
  • How will my family cope without me?
  • What will happen to my children?
  • What will happen at the very end?
  • Will I be in pain when I die?
  • Will I be conscious near the end?
  • Who will be with me?
  • Where will I be when I die?

The links at the bottom of the page take you to information that covers these questions.


For more information

Find out about

Talking about dying

What happens in the final days of life

Spiritual needs

Leaving memories

Final days

Managing your symptoms

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

Share experiences on our online forum – Cancer Chat

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Updated: 11 May 2016