Living with Dying

Own reaction to hearing that life would be shorter

In other Healthtalkonline modules people explain how they reacted to a diagnosis of cancer, heart failure or other serious illness. Here we discuss reactions to the news that life would be much shorter than expected.

When people receive the news that they have a terminal illness they may react in different ways, including disbelief, denial, shock, horror, anger, or stoic acceptance. How they react depends on many factors, including expectations, previous experiences and personality, whether they have dependent children and how the news is broken (see 'How bad news was broken').

Many of the people we interviewed said they were shocked, especially if they did not even know that they were seriously ill. Even those who knew they had a serious illness were sometimes wholly unprepared. A woman who asked her surgeon to be honest with her said that she felt so shocked, when told she had a sarcoma, that she would have welcomed a tranquilliser.

Some people said, however, they were not especially surprised to find out that they might not have long to live. One man explained that ever since he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma he had been prepared for the news that he might only have a few months left. Even his original diagnosis did not have a “shock impact” because he had suspected that his past smoking and exposure to asbestos might have given him lung cancer.

Others reflected that rather than ask, “Why me?” they could just as well ask, “Why not me?” since we all have to die. A man with cancer of the pancreas compared his acceptance of the news that his disease was terminal with his shock when he had first been told he had a tumour.

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Some people are angry or try to deny what is happening. The daughter of a man with motor neurone disease recalled that when her father was told that he was going to die he found it impossible to accept the situation, initially refusing to believe that he would die. A man with progressive multiple sclerosis remembered that he blamed everyone else, including God, for his condition, only gradually accepting the situation with professional help.

A woman with breast cancer comforted herself with the thought that she would not get old and decrepit and be a pain to everyone, but she felt shocked and devastated, and concerned about her husband.

People with partners or dependent children often feel particularly upset and sad on their behalf. A woman who had multiple myeloma was desperately upset because her husband had recently died of the same illness, and she had no idea how she could break the news to her teenage children (see 'Talking to children').

When a man was told that his kidneys were failing he said he felt totally numb at first. Later he started to make plans for the time he had left and eventually found that he was able to use the words 'death' and 'cancer' rather than euphemism.

Guilt is another emotion sometimes felt by those who get bad news. For example, a woman with breast cancer recalled that she felt very guilty because she thought she should have found her tumour earlier (see also 'Roller coaster feelings').

Last reviewed August 2014.

Last updated March 2012.

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