Living with a cancer diagnosis is one thing. Hearing that it has morphed into a terminal illness is another. No matter how long you have lived with cancer, this news is almost certain to shock you. In 1970, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying” introduced the stages of grief that begin with denial and end with acceptance. Don’t be surprised if you go through those stages as you process your own terminal illness and grieve for yourself.
Learn What to Expect
With advancements in modern medicine, death may now be thought of as more of a process than just a single event. Ask your care team any questions you have about the physical experience of dying and what you might endure. Come in with a list for your team about whatever you want to hear about, from what it feels like to what you may look like. But you don’t have to process any information you’re not ready to just yet.
As well, write down a few things you still wish to accomplish, and work with your support team to achieve them in sensible ways. Instead of climbing a mountain, maybe you drive to the nearest mountain range to see it in person. You and your team can figure out practical ways to deal with your personal desires and goals at this time.
Think About What You Want
Chances are you want to use some of your remaining time to set your affairs in order by developing an end-of-life treatment plan. Once you do that, you need to have some honest conversations with your doctor and your loved ones. Are you unsure about where to begin? Download a free starter kit from The Conversation Project. Outline and schedule the conversations with the most important people in your life so you know exactly what you want to say.
Explore What Death Means to You
If you like to read, modern classics like “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom or “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch are helpful for framing your own thoughts about death. You can blog your thoughts or share you experience for support. If you have kept a personal journal of your cancer experiences, continue to write about your hopes, fears and dreams. It’s never too late to seek spiritual guidance or to learn about self-calming techniques like meditation.
Find Specific Resources
There are resources in both book and video form that can help you process and understand your emotions during this time. You can check these titles out online or at your local library. The BBC documentary “Before I Kick the Bucket” follows a young stage 4 breast cancer patient as she comes to terms with her diagnosis. “A Will for the Woods” is a documentary that captures a psychiatrist’s acceptance of his approaching death as he plans for a green burial.
If you need help with the suddenness of the news, “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, MD is a memoir about how a man changes from being “just” a newly trained neurosurgeon to being a terminally ill lung cancer patient. When you’re struggling with how to bring other people into the process, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” examines end-of-life care and why you want autonomy for yourself and safety for those you love, and how to reconcile these seemingly opposite ideals.
Whatever you choose, have honest conversations with your loved ones about what you’re feeling. As well, continue to use the same coping techniques and support networks you’ve done all through your cancer journey as long as they remain helpful.
For inspiration and words of wisdom, read Living Well With Stage 4 Cancer: Drema Robertson’s Story.Learn More