Finding out you are dying

When cancer is advanced, it means that it can't be cured. Doctors might also say that the illness is terminal. This means that it is likely to cause death within a limited period.

How long is difficult to predict, but it could be weeks to several months.

This upsetting news can affect you and the people close to you differently. 

Your first reactions

There is no right or wrong way to react when your doctor tells you your cancer is too advanced to cure. Everyone responds in their way. Of course, for most of us, this is very shocking news, and it can be hard to bear. Even if you thought it might happen, actually hearing it from your doctor can still be extremely upsetting.

Some people go silent. They can't believe what they are hearing and they don’t know what to say or do. Others start to cry and feel as though they won’t be able to stop. Some people become angry and scared. Or they feel numb, as though they have no emotions. These are all very common and natural reactions. 

You might find that questions like the following come into your mind:

  • Why me?
  • Do I deserve this?
  • Why can't you find a treatment to help me?
  • There must be something that will stop this cancer - can't you just try anything?

Give yourself the time to take in what is happening. You might want to be on your own. Or you might need to spend time with your partner, family or friends, to help you deal with the news.

Of course, they are also likely to be very upset. They might not know what to say. But even if all you can do at first is get upset together, that can be a huge help. If you don’t feel like talking straight away, you don’t have to. Just let the people around you know.

As hard as it can be, try not to push your emotions aside completely. At some point, it’s better to express how you feel if you can manage it, even if it's uncomfortable and hard to cope with.

Photo of women talking

How you might feel

Over the first few days, you could feel a lot of very strong emotions. Then you might find they change very quickly. Sometimes these emotions can feel overwhelming. The news will mean that you can’t plan your future in the way you had hoped. Dying could mean leaving behind a partner, children and other important people in your life. You might wonder how they will cope. And you won't want to see them upset.

These thoughts might be too painful to cope with at times. You might be unable to stop crying and worrying. Or you might feel that there is no point in doing anything. You might also find it difficult to see life going on as normal for most people. It can feel very strange to watch people go about their daily lives, do shopping, drive, and work.

All this is perfectly normal and understandable. Coping with this rollercoaster of feelings can be exhausting.

Most people will have some or all of these emotions. This usually changes gradually. Many people say that the intensity and distress lessen in time. This doesn’t mean that you stop worrying or feeling upset. But the feelings get more bearable. You might be able to think about your situation a little more calmly and plan what you want to do.

Talking about your feelings

Sharing your fears and sadness with people you love and trust might be a great relief for you. Many people say that talking about their feelings helps them to cope. It also helps your friends and family to understand more about your situation. In turn, this can make it easier for them to help and support you.

Or you might find sharing your thoughts and emotions too difficult, and you might prefer to keep things to yourself. It’s important to do whatever feels best for you. Don’t let other people pressure you into talking if you don’t feel ready. This is a very personal, emotional time. You can choose how you handle things. But if you would like to talk, make sure you choose people you can talk to easily and who will be able to support you.

If you still feel overwhelmed after some time and feel that you can’t cope, try speaking to someone outside your immediate family and friends. You might want to try some counselling. Also, various organisations can give you information about coping with grief, terminal illness and dying with cancer.

Staying hopeful

It can help people nearing the end of their life, and those close to them, to be aware of what is likely to happen. But only if they want to know this.

Everyone needs to have some sense of hope for their future. When you are dying, this hope could be that you can visit a place that you love. Or you might hope that you can enjoy being with your family and friends for a time.

Some people believe that there is life after death and find that this gives them hope. It could help you to share your hopes with other people, so they can help you fulfil them. Many people hope for comfort, dignity, friendship and love to surround them in their final days.

  • On Death and Dying
    E Kubler-Ross
    Scribner, 2014

  • Stages of Dying

    P Tyrrell and others

    In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 January

Last reviewed: 
22 Mar 2022
Next review due: 
21 Mar 2025

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